STEM Education in Rural Schools: Challenge = Opportunity

Posted on behalf of John Hill, Executive Director, National Rural Education Association.

As I travel around the country, I hear the concerns about opportunities for rural students to study the STEM areas, learn about STEM career opportunities, the availability of Internet and cell service, and the difficulties recruiting and retaining STEM teachers in rural areas. At the same time there are opportunities for employment in jobs which are STEM in nature.

Rural districts and communities have addressed these challenges.

Imagine a large number of like-minded school districts, community colleges, and universities working together to address course offerings, professional development, increasing access to technology, offering dual credit course, and connecting education and regional development.

In the 2010 school year 21 Appalachian Ohio school districts established the Ohio Appalachian Cooperative with the idea “that by joining together, small districts…can leverage the best and brightest to create more opportunities for kids.”

Members of the collaboration have increased student access to more demanding coursework including STEM classes. Five colleges and universities have entered the collaboration to provide flexible opportunities for staff and students. Members have been able to stretch their resources by increasing their purchasing power as a group and entering in to dual enrollment credentialing agreements.

The Rural Alliance for College Success in eastern Washington was established in 2014. This collaborative, consisting of 51 school districts, has many of the same characteristics. Many of the small districts have a low number of STEM teachers. The Alliance has established networks so those teachers can collaborate with colleagues.

In rural northern Indiana, the Rochester Telephone Company, since 1895 has focused on “connecting the community; family to family, friend to friend, and business to business.” Officials, early on, recognized the potential of Internet communications and its importance to education. In 1994, RTC installed fiber optic cable connecting all the buildings in their local school district. In 2002, the process of connecting home with fiber began. The local rural school district has been able to become an early adopter of online learning and utilizes the local telephone system to increase opportunities for local student in the STEM classes as well as other.

Eleva-Strum HS in Wisconsin has taken a different approach. Craig Cegielski, National Rural Teacher of the Year, has established Cardinal Manufacturing, a student run business. In the 9th and 10th grade students enroll in technology education classes. 11th and 12th graders apply for positions in Cardinal Manufacturing. Students perform the functions of quality control, sales, project management, logistics, and client relations. Success on the job depends on knowledge and skills from the STEM areas. Students not only apply the knowledge learned in the STEM areas, they learn the soft skills of employment. This program was planned with the input of local businesses.

To address the shortage of STEM teachers in rural areas, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and Purdue University have developed the STEM Goes Rural program. Individuals trained for jobs in the STEM areas and those in the workforce in the STEM areas are recruited to become STEM area teachers in Indiana rural schools. The selected students receive a graduate scholarship and a $30,000 stipend to assist with living expenses and fees associated with the program. In a fourteen month period, the students are prepared to serve as STEM teachers in rural schools. As a recipient of the fellowship, participants serve a minimum of three years teaching with support from Purdue. Over 4500 rural Indiana students receive STEM instruction from the Woodrow Wilson Fellows.

Traditional STEM materials tended to be non-engaging for students. In the hand of a talented teacher, STEM concepts can be brought to life.   When resources are designed to take advantage of the ways in which students learn, take advantage of available technologies, and placed in the hands of a talented teacher, the possibilities are limitless. This is especially critical for STEM teachers in rural areas who may have multiple preparations a day. This is not enough. Providers with great resources must provide training to teachers so they can leverage the processes and content contained in those resources. Discovery Education is a provider that meets those criteria.

Challenges in STEM education come out of the impact of technology and science on every vocation and every day. In order to address the challenges of STEM education in rural areas, we must rethink what STEM education is and how it can be related to the local community and culture. Consideration must be given to rethinking the local delivery system. A reallocation of resources must be examined and not limited to those available internally, but what resources can be leveraged from the community, and how can resources be leveraged through collaboration with others. Finally, we must seek resources that will enhance our teaching skills.

The glass is not half empty. Challenge creates opportunity. Rural educators working with one another, working with the local community and area businesses, and leveraging quality resources can and will provide quality STEM educational experiences.

Click here to find out more about Discovery Education’s STEM solutions

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