YELL COUNTY, Ark. — Surrounded by fields, farms, and mills, people in Ola, Arkansas admit “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
But on Wednesday the town of 900 people became cutting edge. Two Rivers School District added a heavy equipment simulator to their curriculum, and they believe they are the first in the state.
The purchase was significant. $215,000 went toward buying two simulators which would not have even been possible if not for COVID allowing the district to save more money between school years, but administrators and teachers say the potential makes it all worthwhile.
The Yell County school is offering its students another option to steer their careers with hands-on simulated experiences with 11 different vehicles. They include forklift, track hoe, backhoe, bulldozer, excavator, forestry equipment, etc.
Each hour spent passing training courses can be used for certifications after graduation, so even novices can get in the driver’s seat with no risk.
“I still have a couple of years until I can do this,” admitted 11-year-old Tristan Garrison who is the resident expert in the classroom.
“It’s kind of similar from playing with my cousins,” Tristan described. “With most games, you use a controller and keyboard, but this does not really have keyboards.”
Pedals, a steering wheeling, seatbelt, hydraulic movements, and a tablet displaying an operation dashboard add to the immersion.
Through the simulator, students are exposed to real skills and careers that the community needs. Two Rivers School District Superintendent Harry Alvis described the moment students entered the classroom Wednesday.
He said, “Any time you get a chance to see a kid discover something and learn something, you can see their eyes change and their attitudes change, and just the smiles on faces because they are doing something that maybe even 20 minutes before getting on the machine they never thought they’d be able to do, and now those skills seem real, they seem attainable, and they seem like real options.”
According to Superintendent Alvis, 80% of the area is considered below the poverty line. College seems unattainable to many. About 25% of the district’s students go to college and half drop out going directly to the workforce.
“I think it’s our jobs as educators to open doors for students,” Alvis stated. “Whether it’s a four-year degree. Whether it’s going into the workforce or military, we need to open that door for them.”
Jennifer Garrison works on a farm herself and, as the ag teacher, she knows kids need agriculture exposure.
“We were fortunate enough to tour a logging site this last year, and the average age of a logger is between 50 and 60,” Garrison described. “That’s a group that will have to have kids coming up to replace them. They are getting close to retiring.”
By bringing big equipment onto a screen and into a classroom, she knows it’s playing a role in raising the next generation.
“This gives kids a chance to get an education here and to go right out that back door and to get a job,” she said.
Jobs that once seemed intangible but are now fun.
Tristan concluded, “I really enjoy it, and I think other people will too.”
Two Rivers School District plans to make the simulator available for local farms and businesses to try out, and if they do, it will be the students showing how the machines work, giving them a foot in the door to show their skills to employers.
Jennifer Harrison said, “Their ability amazes me. I think this is an amazing program. It gives them an amazing opportunity, and they are going to teach me quite a few things on these machines.”