FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — A school program that emphasizes critical thinking and creative problem-solving is expanding across Northwest Arkansas and the rest of the state.

EAST, which stands for education accelerated by service and technology, allows students to do projects that benefit their community. An EAST classroom is equipped with the latest technology, from cameras and computers to software for things such as 3-D animation and computer-aided design. Students learn to use the hardware and software as they do their projects, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

The class is offered at 254 schools, including elementary through high schools. Northwest Arkansas Community College also has adopted it.

Most EAST schools are in Arkansas, where the program started in 1996 with a single classroom in Greenbrier. Several others are in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. The nonprofit EAST organization is based in Little Rock.

EAST officials recently announced 14 more schools, including six in Benton and Washington counties, have been awarded an EAST program starting this fall. They include four elementary schools in Springdale — George, Tyson, Monitor and Parson Hills -- as well as Farmington's Folsom Elementary School and Bentonville's Washington Junior High School.

"The decision to establish an EAST environment promises to give their students, staff and community partners a memorable experience that will likely impact their future endeavors," said Matt Dozier, president and chief executive officer of EAST.

Springdale, the largest school district in the state, will have 23 of its 30 schools offering EAST as of this fall, the most of any district. Superintendent Jim Rollins is a member of EAST's board of directors. Dozier said it's been "an absolute joy" working with Springdale.

"It's incredibly rewarding when the work that you're doing, the school district understands because of what they see out of their students. So they commit to wanting to make that available to all of their students," Dozier said.

A project done this year by some EAST students at Springdale's George Junior High School was named the state winner in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest, an honor that came with $20,000 in technology for the school.

The project targeted Arkansas' low childhood vaccination rates for influenza and other diseases. The students created 360-degree videos to be viewed through virtual-reality headsets by young children as they are receiving their shots, with the aim of reducing their stress during the process. Children watch a superhero give them special powers as a nurse administers a vaccine.

Students said they learned many valuable video production techniques, including designing a drone with a 360-video camera that required 3-D printing custom parts, according to a video they produced documenting their project.

EAST works closely with the Arkansas Department of Education. The state provides most of the organization's funding. An EAST classroom contains thousands of dollars' worth of hardware and software similar to what's being used in business and industry.

Schools interested in getting an EAST lab can pay for it in one of two ways. They can pay the entire initial expense themselves, which generally amounts to more than $100,000; they still must be approved by EAST to carry the program. The other way is to apply for approval and a grant from the EAST organization, although schools receiving the grant are expected to invest $25,000.

Washington Junior High School went the latter route, helped by a $25,000 grant from the Bentonville Schools Foundation. It will become the first junior high school in Bentonville, and only the third school in the district, to offer EAST.

Washington won't request any additional district dollars to maintain the program, Principal Tim Sparacino said.

Washington must offer at least three sections of the class, each with a maximum of 20 students; so far, 174 students have requested the course, Sparacino said. It could be as late as midsummer before the school finalizes how many EAST sections it offers, he said.

In March, the Bentonville School Board unanimously approved allowing Washington to have an EAST lab, despite some members' concern that doing so would make the curriculum unequal to that of the district's other two junior high schools.

The Arkansas Department of Education awards an average of 15 EAST programs a year. Those awards typically are distributed across the state in as diverse a manner as possible. Bentonville couldn't receive awards for each of its junior high schools all at once, unless the district was willing to forgo the organization's grants, Sparacino said.

Don Hoover and Bradley Webber, principals of Lincoln and Fulbright junior high schools, told the board they supported Washington Junior High's application. Both said their schools are engaged in community-oriented activities similar to what happens in an EAST class.

Hoover said his daughter was shy and disconnected from school before she got involved in EAST when she was in fourth grade in a different district.

"It made her blossom because she found some confidence and a passion," he said.

Joe Quinn, a Bentonville board member, complimented principals on introducing programs such as EAST that engage students in real-world experiences.

"Unemployment's at 3%, lowest ever. There is a huge need for a workforce," Quinn said. "I commend you for programs that better equip our kids to move seamlessly into the workforce."

Last school year, more than 25,000 students participated in EAST nationwide. Those students completed about 2.6 million community service hours valued at more than $66 million to their local communities, according to the organization.