The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded Ferris State University a $669,216 Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Award, the “FerrisNow STEM Dual Enrollment Virtual Reality (FerrisNowVR) Initiative.”
The FerrisNowVR Initiative aims to increase the number of STEM courses available to high school students in rural areas through dual enrollment. Being held live, these online classes will use immersive virtual reality technology to create a more engaging and collaborative online learning environment. This initiative will reach students in rural communities in Benzie, Isabella, Kent, Lake, Mason, Mecosta, Missaukee, Montcalm, Oceana, Osceola and Wexford counties in Michigan. Ferris was the only grant awardee in the state of Michigan.
“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 technology connects Ferris State University and students in rural communities. The equipment can be used for additional VR experiences to meet the needs of school districts and communities.”
The grant funds’ goal is to improve rural access to education, training, and health care resources that are otherwise unavailable or limited. According to the USDA, Ferris’ proposed installation of three virtual reality-enabled hubs on campus and virtual reality-enabled classrooms across 20 rural locations will serve a potential population of 5,000 high school students in 11 Michigan counties. Ferris campus hub sites will be set up with fixed VR conferencing equipment installed in designated classrooms. Hubs will be equipped with high-end computers, monitors, keyboards, mice, VR headsets, headphones, digital writing tablets and basic electrical support elements. The 20 end-user sites will be outfitted with VR headsets, headphones, VR capable laptops and electrical support elements.
“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.”
Through virtual reality technology, Ferris expects to increase the number of synchronous STEM courses offered for dual enrollment throughout the 11-county area. The efforts will enable students to earn college credits toward a program certificate leading to potential STEM degrees such as Computer Information Systems, Computer Information Technology, and Information Security and Intelligence (Cybersecurity/Cloud Computing) while in high school.
Ferris’ Board of Trustees approved acceptance of the award at its regular meeting on Friday, Oct. 2. The award required a 15-percent match of $101K, centrally funded through Ferris’ President’s Office. The Ferris match sets the total project cost at $770,216.
The FerrisNowVR’s leadership team includes co-project leaders Stakley and Peterson. The rest of the team is comprised of Tracy Russo, senior instructional designer for Extended and International Operations, who will serve as the faculty development training coordinator, and Angela Buys, professional advisor for the School of Digital Media in the College of Business, who will serve as the site engagement coordinator.
Peterson and Stakley stated 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.
USDA State Director for Michigan Jason Allen noted, “This continues USDA’s historic investments in rural Michigan infrastructure. Ferris State is one of many universities that is leveraging educational resources to reach rural areas and we are always looking for more partners.”
Looking ahead, FerrisNowVR is expected to include classes in health professions, engineering technology and other STEM programs.
“This cross-campus collaborative grant is an excellent example of how new and innovative approaches created at Ferris can benefit our society, and particularly the rural communities in Michigan”, said Thomas Dowling, director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. “We are fortunate to have strong support from the provost and president for the research being done here, that focuses on solving real-world problems in education, public health, the sciences and health care.”
To learn more about investment resources for rural areas, interested parties should contact their USDA Rural Development state office. USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.
High School, Career and Technical Education Center End-User Sites
Benzie Central Senior High School (Benzie County)
Montabella Junior/Senior High School (Isabella County)
Creative Technologies Academy High School (Kent County)
Baldwin High School (Lake County)
West Shore Educational Service District (ESD) Career and Technical Education Center (Mason County)
Big Rapids High School (Mecosta County)
Chippewa Hills High School (Mecosta County)
Crossroads Charter Academy Middle/High School (Mecosta County)
Mecosta-Osceola Career Center (Mecosta County)
Morley Stanwood High School (Mecosta County)
Lake City High School (Missaukee County)
Central Montcalm High School (Montcalm County)
Tri-County High School (Montcalm County)
Shelby High School (Oceana County)
Evart High School (Osceola County)
Marion High School (Osceola County)
Pine River High School (Osceola County)
Reed City High School (Osceola County)
Manton Consolidated High School (Wexford County)
Wexford-Missaukee Career Technical Center (Wexford County)