(JACKSON, Miss.) — Jackson State University was recently awarded $230,000 to assist students impacted by the pandemic and $345,000 to redesign the University’s STEM curriculum using virtual reality. Both amounts equate to over $500,000 for the University.
The funding is part of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Funds, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The program is designed to address academic and student needs spurred by the pandemic.
STEM -Virtual Learning
In early October, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves released over $5 million in funds for the first round of proposals providing Essential Emergency Educational Services. Two proposals were submitted on behalf of JSU.
For Dr. Almesha L. Campbell, assistant vice president in the Division of Research and Economic Development, the GEER Fund provided the right opportunity to complement and transform some of the University’s STEM curriculum using virtual reality.
Virtual reality creates a computer-generated environment that will immerse the user into a virtual world – think “Avatar.” The immersion is typically done using an electronic device like a VR headset and computer or television screen.
“Due to COVID-19, we have experienced challenges with students getting hands-on experience in a classroom setting or being engaged in project-based learning, as well as having access to state-of-the-art technology,” Campbell said.
Now, she explained, the $345,000 award allows JSU to identify the STEM curriculum or courses that pose the most challenge for students and infuse virtual reality to impact course delivery, student engagement, and student learning outcomes. This project will be a collaboration between the JSU VR Academy, within the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET).
The funding is two-faceted, said Dr. Wilbur Walters, dean of CSET. It will support innovative means and practices to stimulate learning, as well as increase the participation of those with special needs and disabilities in activities that typically would pose a challenge for them.
Innovations in VR would provide stimulation for learning utilizing an audio-visual medium which elevates the level of engagement and more illustrative interaction while promoting and honing their coordination abilities and development, according to Walters.
“Also, it aims at seeking creative and innovative solutions to safety applications and material design, for example, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to aid caring parents in their safety practices,” he said.
Infusing the technology into the curriculum will enhance learning, transform the way students learn, and allow for interaction among students who may not be physically in the classroom environment, explained Campbell.
“For example, we can develop instruments that would allow students training in engineering tools before they actually touch the physical equipment. This increases safety in handling certain tools and devices,” she said.
Additionally, Campbell voiced, students will not undergo the average classroom experience. Instead, they can learn in a unique environment, which will boost course delivery and infuse curiosity, excitement, and high engagement in STEM courses, and prepare students to really navigate the tech-driven workspace upon completion of matriculation.
“Imagine teaching students about space, and then transporting them to the international space station for closer observation,” she added.
Faculty and students will also have the opportunity to be trained in VR development and learn how to create VR content to align with the courses they administer and take.
“So, this also provides some workforce development opportunities, as well as great opportunities for industry partnerships,” said Campbell.
Walters concurs with the benefits of a VR augmented education. He affirms the enormous impact it will have on the quality and venues of STEM learning and training and pave the way for the design and application of innovative tools and products.
Most importantly, Walters stated, is the elevation of engagement and logic students will gain processing abstract formulas and equations in a simulated and visualized interactive medium. VR significantly garners collaborations and results while disseminating knowledge and products, proving critical in finding solutions to many STEM problems, concerns, daily processes, and outcomes.
The dean further acknowledged the use of VR in simulating the action mechanisms of the COVID-19 virus and in the design of effective vaccines.
“This knowledge and skill can be incorporated into our STEM curriculum at JSU in our biomedical sciences, chemistry and biochemistry curriculum. VR has also been instrumental in creating products and simulating processes of safety and PPE,” he said. “Such knowledge and innovations can be utilized in our STEM programs in physics, material science and engineering at JSU to advance the training and creativity of our students, staff, and faculty.”
The student scholarship funding means more University students will receive the necessary tools to thrive during the public health crisis explained Heather Denné, executive director of Community Engagement, in the Division of Institutional Advancement.
“Even though JSU was able to help many students, we still fell short in assisting some of our students in need. Our plan includes continued online instruction, modified living arrangements, and modified classroom spaces so we can continue to adhere to social distancing guidelines,” she said.
After all financial aid is considered, Denné shared, many students still have unmet financial obligations. The current pandemic further exacerbates their circumstances. Therefore, students are left shouldering a greater financial burden.
“As director of Community Engagement, my ultimate goal is to improve the physical and social conditions of the community in and around JSU. Much of this work focuses on securing funding to assist the community,” said Denné. “JSU students are essential components to the community and face similar financial constraints. It is our responsibility to help students matriculate through college in a meaningful and productive way.”
Data collected by Constance Lawson, executive director of Major and Planned Gifts, revealed the pandemic’s adverse toll on some of the University’s student population, such as internships and job interruptions/losses, distance learning without internet access and laptops, food insecurity, and an employment gap after graduation.
Lawson pointed out that the University has a copious amount of first-generation college students. Therefore, they simply do not have the necessary resources to pay for the rising cost of a college education. As a result, the academic journey for many could be delayed or derailed without the University securing additional private support.
“Quite often, students call and/or visit our office in dire need of financial assistance. Sometimes the assistance we provide determines if he or she will remain in school. We are grateful for this funding because it will help to relieve some of the financial challenges students are currently facing while helping to even the playing field today and beyond,” said Lawson.