- Associated Press - Sunday, October 22, 2017

SPRINGDALE, Ark. (AP) - Two students adjusted the virtual reality headset so Eddie Sue Adams could get a clear view. She was sitting in an armchair in the Rocking Chair Inn retirement home while she experienced a 360-degree view of a boat gliding across a lake.

“Move slowly to the left and right,” Adam Teakell said.

Adams moved her head. She saw kids playing and heard them laughing.

“I liked the video very much,” she said. “It was like being there - back on my son’s boat.”

The experience is part of the Back to the Past project by four seventh-graders in the EAST program at Sonora Middle School, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Teakell, Alyssa Wilson, Brayden Hamilton and Kylee Dunn are diligently working this semester to make the inn residents’ memories come to life.

EAST is a project-based, service-learning oriented program that provides students with high-end technology to find creative solutions to real problems in their community.

Sonora was one of many Arkansas schools that implemented the initiative in the 2014-15 school year. Many joined before and since totaling 221 EAST schools today in the state, according to the nonprofit group’s website.

Derek Ratchford, the Sonora EAST teacher, said he is very hands-off and wants his students to learn through trial and error to navigate technological, legal and other hurdles that might come their way.

After some setbacks with their original client idea last spring, Wilson remembered volunteering at the Rocking Chair Inn where she heard residents’ stories, and noticed how the stories changed a little each time they were told.

“We were hoping to help them get one of their most precious memories back,” she said.

Wilson and Dunn asked some of the residents what places and times they would most like to revisit. The girls explained their group planned to record 360-degree video that could be viewed virtually through headsets attached to a cellphone.

It took some explaining, Dunn said, but residents said they liked the idea once they understood what the group was trying to do.

Dianne Davis, the inn’s owner, is Wilson’s aunt. She is impressed with the students and their teacher.

“It’s a cool thing for them to do,” she said. “It’s something the residents will cherish and can show their grandkids now.”

Once they had a concept, Teakell and Hamilton came in on the tech side. Teakell filmed and uploaded the finished product onto YouTube. Hamilton has a knack for editing and learned the ins and outs of Adobe Premier Pro.

The group gathered as many details as possible about some of the residents favorite moments and places to try to capture what made those memories special, Ratchford said.

Obstacles appeared. A woman wanted her family all together for Christmas, but they were spread all over the country and it just wasn’t feasible, Ratchford said. The students were distraught for about a week, but they focused on projects they could do locally.

David Dickinson, a retired University of Arkansas professor, wanted to visit his Jewish Literature classroom. One resident wanted to tide a four-wheeler and a horse and another wanted to go to Eureka Springs.

“I felt like I was back in the school days again,” Dickinson said Friday after viewing the video.

The students hunted down the exact classroom he had taught in and the university let them film on the first day of class after they collected waivers from all the college students.

“It was a good starting point and a good thing for them to focus on the exact memory and learning exactly what made that special,” Ratchford said. “They listened to that recording over and over again to make sure they were getting exactly what was best for the client.”

The four presented their project at EAST Night Out at school that showcased several projects and drew a crowd of about 325 people.

The boat and university videos went up online last week after some challenges finding the right editing software and with YouTube, Wilson said. “Things were a little hectic at first,” she said.

Hamilton added, “After the first, it kind of became second nature.”

The remaining videos are in various stages of production. Wilson said they’re hoping to make more but need to evaluate how this test runs go first.

Teakell said, “I think one goal is just to see how it affects them, if it makes them happier in their life.”

Each of the students said they want to do similar projects involving advanced technology, and continue on to careers in engineering, computer science or similar fields.

Ratchford and the four students will present their project at the Facebook TechStart Tour stop Monday at the university. Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Facebook representatives plan to attend.

“It’s really about promoting what we do and the hard work these kids have done on this project,” Ratchford said. “It has been an eye-opener for a few of them. To see them start caring about adult situations, like Alzheimer’s, and start thinking how it’s affecting others and then make something positive out of it, has been truly special.”

Facebook Inc. donated 400 virtual reality kits to Arkansas public high schools in January as part of the Techstart partnership. The governor’s office announced Aug. 28 a new agreement expands the donation to all 360 public high schools. In addition, each school will receive an Oculus Rift touch controller and 30 virtual reality viewers.

Sonora Middle School didn’t get any kits in the first round because of the age requirements, Ratchford said. He hopes the Back to the Past presentation will persuade company representatives to include them this time. The donation would upgrade the technology they used in EAST projects.


Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.nwaonline.com

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