WEST LIBERTY — Hanging on the wall at West Liberty Middle School is a photograph of former President Barack Obama. It quotes Obama's 2013 Education week speech, "Don't just play on your phone. Program it."

With the help of a new grant from the the Iowa Governor's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Advisory Council, that's just what West Liberty plans to do. 

Partnering with a local software developer, Jens Zalzala, the middle school will use the $50,000 grant to fund an after-school program that will expose students to software programming. 

"Recently we've been doing a lot of work with virtual reality," Zalzala said. "So it's really fun work to look at. It's kind of a good opportunity to show students and get them excited about something."

According to STEM Advisory Committee Executive Director Jeff Weld, getting students excited about STEM is an important step toward increasing job opportunities in the state.

"It was launched because the talent pipeline from K-12 and post-secondary to our industries and businesses in the state is weaker than it needs to be," Weld said. "Employers of Iowa — especially those in high-demand fields like engineering and manufacturing and IT and finance — are really scrambling to find talent here in the state. And it's hard to import to Iowa, so we have to grow our own."

Zalzala has seen a similar problem recruiting software developers. 

"One of the problems we've had is that in Iowa, it's extremely hard to find anyone to hire," Zalzala said. "I'm sure you hear this from everybody in every field, but I feel like especially in (software development), it's incredibly hard to find someone.

"I've been excited about working with schools and doing projects together because we will still need people in a few years," Zalzala said. "And if these kids actually grew up and went into these fields, that would be huge for us."

Zalzala plans to use virtual reality to simplify teaching the programming process, making it more accessible to visual learners.

"One of the things about virtual reality is that even though it is very high-tech, once you put on a headset, you are in a world that doesn't feel high-tech," Zalzala said. "It's this interesting thing where you are suddenly in this world where things become really simple."

He points to virtual reality applications that allow users to paint and build structures in a virtual space. 

"It's all very simple and approachable. And it's that approachable part that really excited me because I was thinking about what if we could build something in VR that is friendly but lets people learn how to program?" Zalzala said. 

Zalzala will design VR stations with the grant money. Each will allow students to interact with virtual objects and visually structure them logically. The hope is that these stations will help students understand the relationship between the way an object moves in virtual space and the programming that allows it to move that way.

"It's all going to be very visual and tactile," Zalzala said. "Kids are going to be working with objects directly and defining the logic of what those objects do in the games in a kind of visual way."

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