BIG RAPIDS — Ferris State University was recently awarded nearly $700,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide area school districts and career centers with virtual reality dual enrollment opportunities.

According to a news release from Ferris, the grant funds will be used for the university’s FerrisNow STEM Dual Enrollment Virtual Reality Initiative, which serves the purpose of increasing the number of STEM courses available to high school students in rural areas through dual enrollment.

“It’s a pretty unique opportunity,” said Caleb Martz, principal of the Mecosta Osceola Career Center.

The MOCC is just one of the many career and technology centers and schools that would benefit from the initiative.

Through the program, Ferris is proposing three virtual reality-enabled hubs on campus as well as virtual-reality enabled classrooms in 20 rural locations.

All high schools in the Mecosta Osceola Intermediate School District would benefit through the program, as well as many other area schools. These include Baldwin High School, West Shore Education Service District, Pine River High School and more.

Classrooms at each location would be set up with virtual reality headsets, headphones, laptops and more, and would potentially provide virtual reality access to 5,000 high school students.

Through the use of these classrooms, participating students would be able to take virtual classes through Ferris, allowing them to earn college credits in STEM programs while still in high school.

Deedee Stakley, Ferris’ director of the Office of Transfer and Secondary School Partnerships, said the purpose of the live classes and virtual reality technology is to engage students and provide a collaborative learning experience.

“The focus of this technology provides access to virtual dual enrollment education for high school students,” Stakley said. “The technology connects Ferris State University and students in rural communities. The equipment can be used for additional VR experiences to meet the needs of school districts and communities.”

At Morley Stanwood High School, Principal Jamey Nelson said students would mainly benefit through the use of virtual reality headsets.

Currently having remote learning options for dual enrollment students, Nelson said the virtual reality would be more engaging and allow students to feel as though they are in person.

“It would be a bridge between that isolated, remote learning and being in person,” he said.