Michigan’s Ferris State University is using a $669,216 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to fund a new virtual reality (VR) initiative.

The initiative – FerrisNow STEM Dual Enrollment Virtual Reality (FerrisNowVR) – aims to increase the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) courses available to high school students in rural communities through dual enrollment.

“The focus of this technology provides access to virtual dual enrollment education for high school students,” said Deedee Stakley, Ferris’ director of the Office of Transfer and Secondary School Partnerships.

The funding will be used to hold live, online classes that will use immersive virtual reality technology to “create a more engaging and collaborative online learning environment.” Specifically, the funding will allow for the installation of three virtual reality-enabled hubs on campus and virtual reality-enabled classrooms across 20 rural locations. The initiative will serve up to 5,000 high school students in 11 Michigan counties.

Ferris explained that the campus hub sites will be equipped with fixed VR conferencing equipment installed in designated classrooms. Hubs will have high-end computers, monitors, keyboards, mice, VR headsets, headphones, digital writing tablets, and basic electrical support elements. For the 20 end-user sites, the funding will provide for VR headsets, headphones, VR capable laptops, and electrical support elements.

In addition to the current initiative, the “equipment can be used for additional VR experiences to meet the needs of school districts and communities,” said Stakley.

The new technology will significantly enhance both education quality and access for rural students.

“The immersive nature of VR allows students and faculty to interact naturally in a virtual environment,” said Andrew Peterson, the coordinator of Instructional Technology for Extended and International Operations. “This eliminates any distance, travel, and density or weather restrictions and allows us to broadcast virtual educational content to high school partners throughout Western Michigan.”

Peterson and Stakley said that this grant provides the infrastructure for virtual environments. “They look forward to developing additional educational, social, and exploratory opportunities to use this phenomenal resource,” the university said in a press release.

The grant is part of the USDA’s $72 million investment in distance learning and telemedicine infrastructure in 40 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The funding, announced Oct. 7, will impact more than 12 million rural residents, USDA said in a press release.

“Increasing access to telemedicine and distance learning is critical to building healthier and more resilient rural communities,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “Paired with our monumental effort to expand high-speed broadband access in rural America, these investments will help rural health care centers and education institutions reach more rural residents with essential services and opportunities.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs