BIG RAPIDS — Ferris State University has landed a nearly $670,000 federal grant to expand virtual-based science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programming for rural high school students.
Ferris State announced Monday that it received the $669,216 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, helping move forward its FerrisNow STEM Dual Enrollment Virtual Reality Initiative. The effort provides live, virtual reality STEM classes for high school students in 11 rural West Michigan counties, including every public school in Ferris State’s home of Mecosta County.
The funding came from the USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant program, and Ferris State was the only awardee in Michigan.
“Without this grant, we would not have been able to provide all this virtual reality technology to rural high school partners,” DeeDee Stakley, director of Ferris State’s Office of Transfer and Secondary School Partnerships, told MiBiz. “The majority of the grant truly is going to be in equipment — between equipment and training. Without this, we would not have been able to expand and offer a significant number of dual enrollment courses in the VR environment.”
Ferris State will provide a 15-percent match for the grant ($101,000), which will go to cover the $770,216 used to deploy the necessary technology.
Through the program, Ferris State will outfit its campus with three virtual reality-enabled hubs where professors provide instruction and receive training in the technology. Once trained, professors can take a VR headset and teach from anywhere.
Twenty partner schools will be outfitted with end-user sites, which include VR headsets, headphones, VR capable laptops and other electronic support elements that transcend the traditional remote learning experience.
“What we saw a lot of (during the COVID-19 pandemic) was instructors would put up a PowerPoint or post assignments, but there wasn’t a synchronous experience — no engagement,” Stakley said. “That’s part of what this VR environment changes.”
The program will serve potentially 5,000 high school students throughout the 11 counties: Benzie, Isabella, Kent, Lake, Mason, Mecosta, Missaukee, Montcalm, Oceana, Osceola and Wexford.
Once the funds are released, Stakley hopes to procure technology by the end of this semester. She then hopes to conduct a phased approach to installation and training throughout the spring and summer and offer dual enrollment courses beginning in fall 2021.
“This continues USDA’s historic investments in rural Michigan infrastructure,” USDA State Director for Michigan Jason Allen said in a statement. “Ferris State is one of many universities that is leveraging educational resources to reach rural areas and we are always looking for more partners.”
Stakley said Ferris State has dabbled in virtual reality since 2018 and has received a couple pilot grants used internally. While the infrastructure for the FerrisNow STEM Dual Enrollment Virtual Reality Initiative will be mainly used to teach students at partner high schools, it will also help Ferris State make further strides in remote learning.
For instance, some students are working on ways to provide campus tours and new student orientation within virtual reality environments. Partnering schools will also benefit from the technology.
“When the equipment is not being used for dual enrollment, the partner schools can use that equipment in their buildings,” Stakley said. “So maybe they want to incorporate an e-sports program on their campus. They would need the equipment to do that. If there is a community-type activity that they can hold in a VR environment, they can do that as well.”