BY MELANIE BUCK –
Walking on the moon and exploring museums without ever leaving the classroom is what Mena Middle School students are doing thanks to Oculus, a piece of virtual reality gear, made possible for students through the Arkansas & Facebook Techstart Partnership.
When the program was announced by Governor Asa Hutchinson in January 2017, he explained the purpose of Techstart. “The Arkansas & Facebook Techstart Partnership is a first-of-its-kind partnership with the social media giant. Under the agreement, Facebook will donate 500 Virtual Reality (VR) classroom kits, including computers, cameras and the Oculus Rift equipment necessary to administer the Techstart program.”
Techstart, developed by Facebook, Inc., aims to give students access to high quality computer science and virtual reality education to, in turn, generate interest in computer science careers and provide instruction for students. Techstart uses a combination of virtual reality instruction, curriculum support and professional development for educators, access to computer science events and connections to engineering mentors to provide a powerful tool for students.
According to MMS EAST Facilitator Melissa Lunsford, Oculus is indeed proving to be a powerful tool. She said that it has been a “fantastic re-enforcer” and the students “identify” with the technology, creating more interest. And, just for clarification, it isn’t a game console, the students go places they never dreamed possible, all while learning about science, history, culture, and more. “They can actually sit in the trenches of World War II and experience the fire and bullets flying overhead,” Lunsford explained. “It gives them a sense of what it was like for those that were there and brings it to life.” From exploring the tiniest of cells in the human body to walking through the Smithsonian, the students are “preparing for future careers,” and the technology at hand is allowing students to experience education in a whole new realm.
Mena Middle School was fortunate to qualify to receive two Oculus VRs; one they will keep in an area near the library for all classrooms to use and another was received specifically for having an EAST lab, where it is used daily. Both units were donated completely from Facebook.
In addition to Oculus, students in EAST are also using industry leading software such as Adobe Premiere Pro for video editing, and InDesign and PhotoShop for marketing.
“We are preparing students to move forward in engineering, math, science, and more,” said Lunsford. One students has been able to use CAD software to design a new farming equipment tool, which he has sent to John Deere. “Our students used software to redesign the entrance garden here at the school.”
They also use game design software where they create dinosaurs, people, and other animals. With their 3D printer, students plan to take a photo of themselves and print a bust.
Students have built robots inside the EAST classroom and created the codes to make it move. They launched a robotics team in early April and are looking forward to entering competitions next year.
Following the Techstart Partnership, Governor Hutchinson said, “Arkansas continues to lead the nation in computer science education and this partnership with Facebook’s Techstart program will make us even stronger in that regard. Facebook’s generous donation will both excite and empower Arkansas students to sharpen their computer science skills and to explore STEM careers. Students who utilize this incredible platform will be positioned to succeed in our increasingly technology driven economy.”
It is clear by their use of the tools and technology provided to them, Mena Middle School EAST students are at the forefront of this movement and are able to be more prepared for a successful future.