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How a VR Hub Can Help Displaced Coal Miners in Kentucky

Residents of Kentucky will start learning and developing certifications in virtual reality after a grant purchased 20 VR consoles to be used by students during the day and displaced coal miners at night.

by Will Wright, Lexington Herald-Leader / December 6, 2019
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(TNS) — Starting next semester, students at Perry County Central High School in Kentucky will begin learning and developing certifications in a somewhat unconventional field: virtual reality.

Through a $100,000 grant from Berea College’s GEAR UP program, the school purchased 20 virtual reality consoles that it will open up to students during the day, and displaced coal miners at night.

School leaders hope it will be one of the next steps to rebuild Eastern Kentucky’s faltering economy, and provide students with at least part-time employment opportunities after graduating high school.

Virtual reality headsets have made stirs within the technology and gaming communities, giving participants the feeling of being within a virtual world.

The headsets completely fill the users’ visual field. When the user looks up, she sees what’s above her. When she turns around, she sees the world behind.

“It really blew me away,” said sophomore Kayce Campbell. “I was really surprised by how real it feels. I thought it was really cool and I’m really excited for it to be here and to actually learn and experience with it more.”

Perry County Superintendent Jonathan Jett said the immersive experience could help students who struggle to engage in ordinary classroom work. He also hopes it will give students a leg up in finding work after graduation.

“One of two things are gonna happen: They’re gonna leave here to find jobs, or we’re gonna provide them with the skill sets and the qualifications that they need to be successful anywhere in the world, or from home,” he said. “Virtual reality opportunities, a lot can be done from within your own house — you can work around the virtual for different companies and never leave home.”

The consoles were purchased from Mississippi-based LOBAKI Inc., a virtual reality firm where former Kentucky state auditor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adam Edelen is vice chairman.

LOBAKI has worked with schools in five states to develop similar programs, and awards certifications to students who learn to develop applications through its virtual reality systems.

“We’re making sure that the young people in this community have the skill set that they need to not only benefit from the emergence of this new technology, but to drive it,” Edelen said. “We’re creating new economic opportunities in a community that’s dealing with economic difficulty.”

Technology, coupled with access to high-speed Internet access, has been an economic priority for communities across Eastern Kentucky grappling with a severe decline in coal jobs and population.

The economic development group Shaping Our Appalachian Region lists broadband Internet access as its number one objective to diversify the region’s economy.

Michael Smith, Perry Central’s director of technology, said he sees this virtual reality hub as a major point in bringing new employment opportunities to a generation that has few options within their home counties.

“Through the years, Eastern Kentucky has not been diversified. Our economy has been a one-track economy,” Smith said. “Now, we’re starting to branch out and use technology to make an economy and jobs for our students in the future.”

As many as 100 students may utilize the virtual reality consoles during the upcoming spring semester. Starting in the fall, the school will open up during some evenings to train adults — particularly displaced coal miners — to develop software and other virtual reality systems.

Since the end of 2012, the number of coal jobs in Perry County has dropped by more than half, from 1,530 to 640 at the end of the the third quarter of 2019, according to figures from the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet. The total amount of wages flowing into the county, across all industries, has also declined in the past decade, from $506 million in 2008 to $428 million in 2018.

“We have many, many displaced coal miners who have lost their jobs, and for generations that was the driving force of the economy here,” Jett said. “With the severe decline in that, people are looking for employment where they can make a living wage and provide for their families — this would be an opportunity for many of those people to find work where they’re employable and can still stay in Eastern Kentucky.”

Brady Adams, a junior at Perry County Central High School, said he’s most looking forward to the virtual reality engineering certification that will come with the new consoles.

Adams is in the school’s coding pathway, where he and other students learn to develop websites and other coding systems. The VR certification, which they hope will land them part-time jobs while they attend college, will teach them to develop games and other applications within virtual reality.

“I think it just opens up a door of possibilities for our school and our community,” Adams said. “Honestly there’s just so much you can do with it that, I mean, the sky’s the limit.”

©2019 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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