Expanded VR agreement announced during visit
The state announced an expanded agreement for virtual reality equipment with Facebook Inc. Monday as Gov. Asa Hutchinson visited two Hot Springs high schools.
The governor concluded his fifth computer coding tour of Arkansas high schools Monday with stops at Lakeside High School and Hot Springs World Class High School. The tour promoted computer science with visits to Harrison, Alpena, Green Forest, Beebe and Forrest City last week.
High school and middle school students in grades 7-12 filled Lakeside’s Athletic Complex for Hutchinson’s visit. He commended the high school for the willingness of teachers and students to join in the state initiative to increase computer science education opportunities.
The high school reported an increase of 72 students enrolled in computer science courses during the 2016-17 school year to 391 students this year. Hutchinson also noted a national deficit of female students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but Lakeside increased its participation from 26 percent of female students in computer science to 51 percent this school year.
“Arkansas is leading the nation in computer science education,” Hutchinson said. “And, let me tell you, Lakeside looks to be right at the top in Arkansas.”
Hutchinson announced the details of the agreement with Facebook’s TechStart program during the assembly at Lakeside. Facebook partnered with the state in a first-of-its-kind partnership earlier this year to donate approximately 400 virtual reality classroom kits to administer the TechStart program to approximately 250 schools.
“Facebook has committed to provide a virtual reality kit to every high school in Arkansas,” Hutchinson said.
Facebook developed TechStart to give students access to computer science and virtual reality education as a way to generate interest in related fields. The program offers virtual reality instruction, curriculum support and professional development for educators, access to computer science events and connections to engineering mentors.
The classroom kits included computers, cameras and Oculus Rift equipment. The recipient schools were based on the percentages of students who qualified for free and reduced price meals.
“Unfortunately, Lakeside missed out on that, but, as the governor said earlier, we are glad to announce that we are rolling that out statewide,” said Anthony Owen, Arkansas Department of Education director of computer science education.
The new agreement will extend to all of the more than 360 public high schools in Arkansas. Each school will receive an Oculus Rift touch controller and 30 virtual reality viewers, which were not included in the original donation.
Facebook’s final donation
will include more than 550 virtual reality kits and a financial commitment of more than $1.3 million to the #ARKidsCanCode Initiative. The state partnered with the Arkansas Public School Resource Center to aid the ADE’s Computer Science Division in the distribution and facilitation of the new resources.
Scott Smith, executive director of the APSRC, attended Monday’s announcement, as did ADE Commissioner Johnny Key. Hutchinson noted the support of the state legislature, which provided $5 million for teacher training for computer science classes. Legislators in attendance included state representatives Mickey Gates, R-District 22; Bruce Cozart, R-District 24; Les Warren, R-District 25; and Laurie Rushing, R-District 26.
Hutchinson spoke to the entire junior class of Hot Springs High in the school’s Johnnie Mae Mackey Theatre. The governor said his tours are meant to increase student interest in computer science, show them job opportunities in related fields and opportunities to make a wide-reaching impact.
“I will make you a promise, if you take computer science, there will be a job for you whenever you learn your coding skills right here in Arkansas,” Hutchinson said at Hot Springs. “There is great opportunity for us. I have never been more optimistic.
“I have done a lot of things as governor. It has taken me to Europe, Cuba and China bringing jobs to Arkansas, but I think nothing impacts our future more than this right here and that is the opportunity for computer science for our students in the future.”
Students at both schools viewed a video about the importance of coding with Arkansas businesses and employees. The video highlighted in-state companies, such as Apptegy, Elyxor and Metova.
Hutchinson said Walmart is even seeking employees for coding to compete with online retailers, such as Amazon. He said 1 million coding jobs are projected to be unfilled within the next four years.
The governor visited the tech hub of Silicon Valley in California after he was elected in 2014. He said companies were eager to see Arkansas students learn computer science and move to California to work.
“People love Arkansas,” Hutchinson said. “Let’s build technology companies right here, so that our talent can stay here and they can make money here. And we are doing that.”
Hutchinson’s tour of Lakeside included a showcase of student projects and skills from the primary, intermediate and middle schools. He visited Hot Springs High’s Environmental and Spatial Technologies classroom with Hot Springs Mayor Pay McCabe and Matt Dozier, president and CEO of the EAST Initiative.
“As I go out, I also learn a lot,” Hutchinson said. “I learn what the students are doing and how impressive these students are in the EAST lab.”
Students from four high schools in Arkansas were selected to attend Facebook’s headquarters in California in July. Owen said enthusiasm for the state partnership from Facebook was cultivated when representatives from the company attended the 2017 EAST Conference at the Hot Springs Convention Center and Bank of the Ozarks Arena.
“Representatives from California came to me after that conference and said that is the best student-focused technology conference they have been to anywhere in the United States of America,” Owen said.
Hutchinson said he emphasizes basic computer science courses in high school, but career education classes and EAST help engage students in coding and related STEM fields.
“Students really like that very practical side of their projects,” Hutchinson said. “Teachers make all of the difference in the world. Whenever the teachers learn the skills and you’ve got more teachers, more students respond to that.”
Hutchinson said he is impressed to see students work on such complex projects in EAST, but he is also excited to learn many of them want to become entrepreneurs.
“That means creating jobs,” Hutchinson said. “It is wonderful they want to have motivation to make money and change the world at the same time, but that will create technology jobs in this state. These kids will be doing it down the road.”
COMPUTER SCIENCE: Gov. Asa Hutchinson, center, learned about a math for kids program created by Emma Ferguson, right, during his visit to Lakeside High School Monday. Fellow Lakeside student Hannah Whorton helped film the visit for the school’s broadcasting program, which was highlighted by the governor and his office.