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story.lead_photo.caption Preparing: Strong High School students Caleb Franklin, Marshay Wayne, Reese Ballard, Amaya Smith and Tyrese Rogers observe as Jamyron Thompson uses virtual reality equipment. Thompson, a sophomore, uses the Oculus Rift in Tina Raney’s Marketing class. Students will create a marketing plan based on an application on the VR system during this grading period.

All area high schools are now eligible to receive virtual reality equipment because of the state’s relationship with social media giant Facebook.

Virtual reality, commonly referred to as VR, is interactive computer technology where cellphone simulations can be viewed through special glasses, providing a 360 degree screening experience. Most of Americans’ VR use is through gaming via cellphones and PlayStation consoles.

“Virtual reality provides experiences many of my students have never been exposed to, especially my socioeconomically disadvantaged students. With VR, they can travel to almost any country or place of interest, they can first-hand explore careers, especially STEM careers (and) they can dissect the human body. The experiences are endless,” said El Dorado High School principal Ava Reibe.

Facebook’s education program, TechStart, promotes computer science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) studies by providing equipment and training to schools.

The Arkansas & Facebook TechStart Partnership initially provided “high schools that contain a high percentage of low-income students” with about 400 VR kits that include Oculus Rift equipment, computers and cameras, according to a press release published by Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office.

“This program is only available in New York City, Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area and now Arkansas. Many thanks to our governor who sees the importance of aggressively exposing our students to the latest in technology, especially when we are part of a technology-driven economy,” Reibe said.

VR kits were distributed as the Arkansas Department of Education’s computer science division and Arkansas Public Resource Center saw fit.

But the partnership was extended to all state public high schools after a new agreement was implemented.

“We are appreciative to Facebook for its continued efforts to generate excitement for STEM fields in Arkansas high schools,” Hutchinson said. “Facebook’s generous donation will provide Arkansas’ students with an exciting learning platform that will allow them to have fun while sharpening their computer science skills and exploring STEM careers. Students who utilize this incredible platform will be well-positioned to succeed in our increasingly technology driven economy.”

A Strong High School classroom already has new VR equipment, among other materials, that was purchased with more than $20,000 in grant funds, according to a previous News-Times report.

Strong-Huttig School District Superintendent Jeff Alphin said, “Strong High School appreciates the equipment made possible by TechStart, developed by Facebook, and the efforts of Gov. Hutchinson. We received two items of VR equipment and support last year for our EAST (Environmental and Spatial Technology) and business departments and our teachers are using it. We look forward to expanding its use into other subjects when we receive the additional supplies.”

The Smackover-Norphlet School District applied to receive this technology, curriculum director Jennifer Lee said.

“Our school district was disappointed earlier this year when we did not qualify to receive the virtual reality equipment so I know that our students and STEM faculty, especially, are going to be excited about the opportunity for our students to be able to use this type of technology,” Lee said.

Parkers Chapel High School is enthusiastic about the expansion as it recently began offering a maker space for students to use technology like drones, 3D printers and Oculus Rift, principal Seth Williams said.

“Arkansas is leading the way in computer science and

innovation, thanks in large part to Gov. Hutchinson, Commissioner Johnny Key and the Arkansas Department of Education. … Students will be able to use this independently under adult supervision or teachers can incorporate it in their lessons and bring an entire class into the Makerspace,” Williams said.

Each school will receive 30 VR viewers and an Oculus Rift touch controller, bringing the total donation to more than 550 kits costing more than $1.3 million, according to the announcement.

Brittany Williams can be reached at 870-862-6611 or Follow her on Twitter and like her on Facebook @BWilliamsEDNT for updates on Union County school news.

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