LITTLE ROCK — Students at most Arkansas high schools will have access to virtual-reality technology thanks to a donation from Facebook.
Facebook is donating 500 virtual-reality classroom kits to Arkansas for use in public high schools around the state, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and a Facebook executive announced Thursday at Little Rock Central High School.
The donation is valued at about $1 million. The kits will include 360-degree cameras, computers and Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets.
Facebook is making the donation to launch its Techstart program, which aims to enhance computer science education and generate interest is careers in the field.
“It’s going to increase the opportunity for students in small schools and urban schools to have this virtual-reality experience,” Hutchinson told students, teachers and reporters in Central High’s auditorium, following a demonstration in which images from a virtual-reality program were shown on a large screen.
“Why is that important? Because as we want to inspire people to learn coding, they need to see how technology works and how their coding experience impacts software, impacts the future, impacts technology and changes the world,” he said. “And so they see it as tangible, and it will encourage more kids to utilize technology, to take coding classes and computer science.”
In 2015 the Legislature approved Hutchinson’s initiative to require that computer science classes be offered in every public high school in the state. Currently, about 5,500 Arkansas high school students are enrolled in computer science classes.
Erin Egan, Facebook’s vice president of U.S. public policy, said Facebook is launching the program in Arkansas and will expand it to other states in the future. She said it was Hutchinson’s computer-science initiative that drew the company’s attention to Arkansas.
“We’re really, really, pleased with what Arkansas is doing,” she said.
Hutchinson told reporters later the Arkansas Public School Resource Center will help the state Department of Education distribute the kits. About two-thirds of the state’s high schools will receive the kits, with schools in low-income and rural areas being a priority, he said.
Egan said that as students learn about virtual reality, they will learn how to code in virtual reality.
“There’s so much history in Arkansas and such an ability to share this content here, so we’re really looking forward to seeing what all of Arkansas and these students can build here,” she said.
Hutchinson said he donned one of the headsets earlier in the day and played a game in which he played the part of a basketball hoop and was able to move around to catch basketballs being thrown toward him.
“It was fun. It was a great experience,” he said.
Some Central High students used the headsets as part of a demonstration just for reporters. Zach McCormack, a senior, also played the basketball game and said afterward it was “really cool.”
McCormack said he would like to code in virtual reality and said one possibility would be to create a program that would allow people to visit the same spot in different time periods.
“Like at a natural park or something, envision how it was back then (and) how it is now,” he said.
Zion Davis, a junior, used a headset to immerse himself in an underwater environment. He said he is interested in designing a program that would allow people to take virtual tours of Central High, the scene of Little Rock’s 1957 school integration crisis.
“I have friends that are out of state and I told them I go to Central and they’re always like, ‘Wow, I’ve heard a lot about it and I would actually want to go up there and see what it’s about.’ Well this way, they’re able to actually look around at the school to see everything that’s here,” he said.