How human connections helped create Hokie Circles
Oct 26, 2020

While the pandemic can make even the most routine tasks a challenge, a couple of students at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University – commonly known as Virginia Tech – have found that the power of their connections with alumni at 3M has helped to make life a little easier, and hopefully a little safer, in their community.

As the school year was ramping up in Blacksburg, Virginia, the Virginia Tech campus – like many across the United States – was faced with the challenge of bringing back students and helping keep them safe at the same time. The campus put out a call for ideas to help limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the community.

Students Joon Kang and Kirat Pandher responded to the urgent need.

“As architecture students, we thought that something spatial would be most effective at encouraging social distancing,” said Joon. “We wanted to keep it simple and universal, and also highly adaptable for different scenarios.”

They settled on the idea of using signs and markers in public areas. They had seen examples of floor graphics for foot traffic and painted circles designated for singles, couples or groups in open spaces elsewhere to help people remember to remain physically distanced outside.

The two had their idea – “Hokie Circles,” a play on the school’s mascot – but needed materials to make it a reality.

That’s where Aki Ishida, an associate professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech – and the child of a former 3M chemist – came through.


Finding the right people – and products

“When my students proposed [Hokie Circles], I immediately thought of reflective films and tapes. I contacted Matt [Johnson] to see if we could collect some samples,” said Aki. She and Matt, a division scientist in the Display Materials and Systems Division (DMSD) at 3M as well as a Virginia Tech grad, had connected a couple years before on a different project.

It was a fortuitous link in the project’s evolution.

“It’s those connections that carried us through the never-been-done-before development efforts,” said Matt.

Hearing what Aki and her students were planning, Matt, along with Paul Conley, a DMSD marketing operations manager, was able to network across the Transportation & Electronics Business Group with Matt Wilding, an advanced product development specialist in the Transportation Safety Division and fellow Hokie, to find materials that fit the bill.

The team was able to secure samples of film for the graphics and 3M™ Connected Roads All Weather Elements, typically used for road striping or signage, for the circles for the students to test.

With help from Virginia Dutt, also a Virginia Tech alum and Commercial Solutions Division field sales rep, the project idea and material application turned out to be a great fit.

Of more than 70 ideas submitted to the school after the initial call, “Hokie Circles” was one of five projects granted funds to pursue their plan.

“The simplicity, elegance, and ability to have an immediate impact on an individual's behaviors was consistently noted about the Hokie Circles' proposal throughout the competition,” said Kiyah J. Duffey, director of strategic innovations at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, one of the school sponsors of the competition.


Applying their idea in the field

With their project selected and their materials chosen, the team decided there was a more pressing need for their signage and circles at the Blacksburg Farmer’s Market, a community gathering place that was becoming increasingly crowded during the pandemic

“They didn’t want to send out messages with billboards but wanted do it in a way that is experiential, and also fun – so people don’t feel like they’re being yelled at to stay 6 feet apart,” Aki said.

Using their 3M materials, they recently installed the orange graphics and yellow circles at the farmer’s market. Aki said the visual reminders seem to be working so far.

“I think habits will form as more people start seeing the dots,” she said. “The university and farmer’s market are posting photos on social media, encouraging people to follow the prompts.”


‘3M comes to life’

For the 3Mers involved, putting the Virginia Tech community first and working with agility to find solutions to their challenge reinforced why they work for 3M.

“To see the spark of entrepreneurship in Aki’s students and to see the disparate pieces come together, that’s how 3M comes to life,” Paul said.

Added Matt Wilding: “What they’re doing is affecting human lives. From safety in traffic to safety in a pandemic, being a part of 3M and the Hokie family has made this even more meaningful.”

The team is currently in discussions with public transit in the area about applying their graphics to bus stops, as well as with the university to paint circles on campus lawns.

Joon said the project has been a learning experience – installing the graphics was faster and required less labor than initially estimated. He’s looking forward to seeing what new, larger projects the team can tackle.

“I am excited to see what future steps we can take on Hokie Circles with the support from 3M,” he said.

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