Middle School student pioneers VR video for future utility workers

Verizon Innovative Learning empowered a shy Kentucky teen to step out of her shell and innovate how a local college recruits new students.

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Grace Lester, now 14, attended the Verizon Innovative Learning STEM Achievers program at Big Sandy Community and Technical College in eastern Kentucky two years ago. There she learned to use cutting-edge technology such as 360-degree cameras and virtual reality (VR) apps. What Grace might not have expected, however, was how soon she'd put her new knowledge of digital tech to professional use — creating a promotional VR video for the college.

Grace’s mom, Jennie Lester, is an administrative assistant for Big Sandy’s Lineman Training program, which prepares workers for jobs in the utility line industry. While Jennie was brainstorming ways to advertise the program, Grace piped up with a thought: Why not create a VR video, using those same 360-degree cameras she had access to during the Verizon Innovative Learning STEM Achievers program? They could attach a camera to a lineman’s helmet and film him climbing a utility pole.

Jennie loved the idea. “I’m proud of her for stepping out of her shell, for having the confidence to do this,” she says of her daughter.

With the footage from the camera-mounted helmet in hand, Grace developed her video. “I stitched it together to create a VR experience of what it’s like to be a lineman,” she explains.

Grace’s innovative idea and practical application of next-gen technology is what the STEM-focused summer program is all about. “Grace is a prime example of how we’re trying to empower students with Verizon Innovative Learning STEM Achievers,” says Jarred Gibson, program director at Big Sandy. In this area of eastern Kentucky, he notes, the poverty level is high and resources are limited. “[The program] gives kids an opportunity to be somewhere in the summer, to get a warm meal every day, or breakfast, while learning curriculum and STEM,” says Gibson. “We provide equipment that they would probably never get to touch otherwise.”

That equipment and training includes VR, AR, 3D printing, robotics, coding and entrepreneurship. With a curriculum designed by Arizona State University, students learn how to use this technology with an entrepreneurial mindset.

For Grace, who is about to start her freshman year of high school, the impact of the program went beyond even the production of the video. When she arrived, she was shy and reserved. “The program really gave me a good opportunity to … expand and make new friends and … become a little more confident,” Grace says. Gibson echoes that sentiment. “Now I see a more confident Grace,” he says. “She isn’t afraid to try new things. She isn’t afraid to help others.”

"The fact that I could help do something that has real-world application is pretty cool."

Grace Lester, 14

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