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Blast off: Peoria youth can now go to outer space with new virtual reality headsets

Peoria Public Library's Lincoln Branch
Tim Shelley
Peoria Public Library's Lincoln Branch.

A trip to the moon and a walk alongside NASA astronauts is now possible for Greater Peoria’s youth, thanks to virtual reality (VR) headsets purchased by the Lincoln Branch of thePeoria Public Library (PPL).

Funding for the state-of-the-art technology comes from a $12,500 grant from Project Next Generation (PNG) that serves culturally diverse and low-income populations. The grants are awarded from Secretary of State and State Librarian Jesse White, using federal Library Services and Technology Act funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Cynthia Smith, branch manager of Peoria Public Library's Lincoln Branch
Jody Holtz
Cynthia Smith, branch manager of Peoria Public Library's Lincoln Branch

PPL’s Lincoln Branch has secured this grant almost every year since they were first awarded 24 years ago — thanks largely to branch manager Cynthia Smith.

“As the Secretary of State and State Librarian Jesse White says, it's all about the kids, and it's all about the technology that we are able to provide through this grant…we're introducing students to technology that perhaps they may not be able to be familiar with,” explained Smith.

The PNG grant will pay for three virtual reality headsets as part of new science, technology, art, and math (STEAM) programming being rolled out in the fall. The grant also covers two mentors from the Peoria community who will have a hand in designing and teaching the programming related to VR technology. While there will be an opportunity for games, Smith said the primary focus will be the exploration of space.

Smith said the library purchased 3 Oculus branded VR headsets
Eric Risberg/AP
Smith said the library purchased 3 Oculus branded VR headsets

“They'll be able to actually know how it feels to be in gravity…and actually be able to dock a space station…walk on the moon…through the VR headset. So, we're trying to just expand their minds as far as the science goes and the technology goes,” said Smith.

There also will be a video archive filled with NASA astronauts who will walk kids through these virtual experiences.
While the mentors will be teaching the program, Smith said their role is much more than that.

“What we hope to accomplish by that is just everyday life, you know, what's going on? How's everything going? Is there anything that we can help you with or talk about or get it off your chest and things like that and actually to motivate them as well,” she said.

Previous mentors have included everyone from Bradley University students, to doctors and teachers.

Additionally, the PPL Lincoln Branch is receiving assistance from the Peoria Guild of Black Artists (PGOBA) to help with their new art and reading program called Children’s Creative Art Live in Color.

“It's learning different techniques, painting structure, different paints, what do they do? How can you accomplish that? So we're going from A to Z. So, they're going to be learning about different artists. They're going to be learning about their techniques. They're actually going to be experiencing it by actually doing that particular type of artwork, and then they're going to be reading about them,” Smith said.

Artists from PGOBA will be teaching the art programs modeled after a certain book representing a particular artist. This is the library’s first partnership with the art world, and Smith stressed the program isn’t just for children living on the south end of Peoria. It’s for all children in the city.

“They're coming in, it's a safe haven. They're learning, they're having fun, there's no pressure…we've seen a lot of students who were shy in the beginning…they want to participate, but they wanted to be closed in, and that barrier came down. And students were able to actually express themselves more in the classroom when they went in the classroom, so we find that very exciting,” said Smith.

Securing a grant is no easy task, especially when it’s done year after year. Smith attributed the library’s success to its ability to produce positive, meaningful outcomes through these programs.

“We've had students that come back to say thank you for the opportunity, and just broadening their horizon to other things that they can possibly do," she said. "There's no limit to what you can do once you set your mind to it...So that's a driving force for us to keep going and keep motivating students to, you know, do better.”

Smith said programming is primarily geared for children in grades 5-8. For more information on how to get involved with the programming, call the PPL Lincoln Branch at 309-497-2600 and ask for Project Next Generation information.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.