BY MELANIE BUCK –
Mena Middle School has been chosen as recipients of two grants recently that will benefit students and educators. The first of the two grants was awarded based on high student performance. MMS Principal Cliff Sherrer explained that they had an exceptional number of students exceed performance standards and were awarded a grant from the state.
Sherrer said that MMS ranked in the top 6 – 10 % of schools in the state in student performance to earn the grant. A panel made up of Sherrer, teacher Robin Ponder, and parent, Stacey Booth, chose to use the grant for a non-recurring faculty bonus for their staff. Mena’s elementary schools have been honored with the same grant in years past and also chose to use the money for staff bonuses.
The second grant is a technology grant that recently became available through Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson’s collaboration with Facebook that launched the “Arkansas & Facebook Techstart Partnership.”
Techstart is the first-of-its-kind and 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 is a program developed by Facebook, Inc. that aims to give students access to high quality computer science and virtual reality education in order to 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.
Governor Hutchinson issued the following statement at the time the partnership was created: “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.”
According to the agreement, Facebook will donate the kits to the state that will be distributed to approximately 250 schools, educational co-ops, and STEM education centers. Mena Middle School has been chosen as one of those schools.
Under the agreement, distribution and facilitation of these resources would be administered through the Arkansas Department of Education Computer Science Division and the Arkansas Public Resource Center.
Erin Egan, Facebook’s Vice President of U.S. Public Policy, issued the following statement: “Facebook aims to inspire the next generation to be involved in and excited about computer science. With 500,000 open computing jobs in this country and just 50,000 computer science graduates every year, the opportunity is clear. Given Governor Hutchinson’s commitment to computer science education and establishing coding opportunities to Arkansas classrooms, bringing Techstart to the Natural State just made sense. We are thrilled to launch this first-of-its-kind partnership and look forward to seeing all the exciting projects students here will build.”
This Facebook Computer Science Education program will give students the opportunity to learn about careers in technology, connect with engineering professionals, participate in coding and other technology-minded workshops, and gain exposure to virtual reality using the Facebook-provided Oculus VR kits.
Mena Middle School is on a list that will receive two kits. If a school offers EAST, they can earn a second Oculus. Principal Sherrer said the kits can be used in varying subjects and one will be placed in the EAST classroom, while the other will be located in the ‘tech café’ near the library. With the virtual technology provided by Oculus, social studies teachers can take their students on a tour of the Smithsonian Museum without ever leaving the classroom, or science teachers can show students, in great detail, how the human heart works and how veins and arteries flow blood to the heart, all without touching a body. Students will also have the ability to write programming for the Oculus, creating more technology experience in the classroom.