Why did Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg visit Eastern Kentucky on Sunday?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg traveled to Hazard on Sunday to meet with students and teachers about the innovative learning taking place in public schools across Eastern Kentucky.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg traveled to Hazard on Sunday to meet with students and teachers about the innovative learning taking place in public schools across Eastern Kentucky. Photo provided

Ben McNamee, a freshman at Belfry High School in Pike County, said he was told he was among the students who would be going to Hazard Sunday to meet with the staff of the national technology-driven Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for a “test-run to see if it was worth somebody big in the corporation to come in.”

But the 14-year-old said he was stunned when “it wasn’t a test run” and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg walked in to work with him and other students and educators from school districts in Pike, Floyd, Johnson, Knott and Wolfe Counties. Zuckerberg traveled to the Hazard-based Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative on Sunday to meet with students and teachers from the five school districts about the technology transforming public schools across Eastern Kentucky,

“We didn’t expect that,” said Belfry teacher Haridas Chandran. “We took four different projects we were working on. He was very pleased with the things the kids had done.”

Zuckerberg and members of his Chan Zuckerberg Initiative “asked for a cross section of students and teachers from our region,” but wanted “it to be a listening and interaction opportunity without media,” said Ron Daley, a Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative official. The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative is an education service agency serving 22 public school districts in rural eastern Kentucky

Students from the five school districts along with Cooperative staff, “were able to demonstrate and discuss some of the innovations taking place in schools and classrooms that are transforming teaching and learning,” said Daley.

“Zuckerberg was able to tour one of the ‘Tiny Houses’ designed and constructed by local high school students, drive a student built robot, witness the flight of a student constructed drone, and experience the state-of-the-art Virtual Realty Capture Suite in the soon to be opened Innovation Lab at the KVEC office,” a news release said.

KVEC is working to help pilot a technology initiative called the Summit Learning Platform in several schools in the region.

“We were talking to him about our robot project,” Ben McNamee said. Their robot named J.D. is designed to help patients with Alzheimer’s Disease deal with cognitive problems by repeatedly asking questions. Zuckerberg “liked that,” Ben said. “He liked the programming part of it.”

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan in December 2015, is a philanthropic organization that brings together engineering, grant-making, policy and advocacy work, its website said.

Zuckerberg posted on his Facebook page that he had traveled to West Virginia and Kentucky over the weekend.

“I talked to some students who were using the Summit personalized learning tools we’ve been building at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and who were learning how to code. These kids were showing me the games, robots, drones, and VR apps (!!) they were coding.”

“They told me they were learning much faster with personalized learning now that they could move at their own pace, and their parents and teachers could help them out more now that they have better info on how they're doing in each topic,” Zuckerberg posted.

“This fall, more than 300 schools in almost every state in the US will be using the Summit Learning Platform to offer a personalized learning experience to students. We’re looking forward to extending this soon so even more students can benefit from personalized learning,” his post said.

On Facebook, a parent named Rachel Stacy, posted that her daughter was one of the students who met with Zuckerberg. “ Thank you so much for taking time for these kids!!! I haven't seen my daughter this excited about anything in so long.... you are one of the people she looks up too!!!,” she posted.

Zuckerberg’s visit comes on the heels of a documentary that also featured Chandran, the teacher , and Belfry students and showed a 2015 visit to Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda. The documentary called “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America” noted that Eastern Kentucky schools were progressive in providing technology unlike schools in some other parts of America.

Narrated by actor Jamie Foxx, the documentary is set to air at 10 p.m. Tuesday on the National Geographic channel. Directed by Academy Award nominee Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, the documentary is screening at the New York Film Festival, which begins this month.

Also in August, KVEC and Chandran’s aerospace class was featured in the Atlantic Magazine, which said that as drone-related employment opportunities expand, the Hazard-based Kentucky educational cooperative is finding ways to offer students the relevant training.

The magazine said that at Belfry, students in Chandran’s aerospace class learned to build wind tunnels out of wooden planks and then used them to test how air currents support flying machines. “The kids cemented their new found aviation knowledge with a trip to a local airport to see airplanes in action. Not surprisingly, Chandran’s students also mastered the science of building and flying drones,” the magazine said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears