How Rural Schools Can Support Successful STEM Programs

Rural schools often lack the resources to support STEM programs. Aaron Smith reports on how some underresourced districts are forging local partnerships to bring hands-on learning opportunities to economically-disadvantaged students.

In Oak Ridge, TN, students don’t enter a lab to attend science class. Instead, they open a box.

Lab-in-a-Box, which launched as a pilot program three years ago, supplies students in rural Tennessee communities with the resources they need to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects.

Local Partnerships

The Lab-in-a-Box initiative is one example of how local partnerships can help underresourced schools augment their STEM curricula. In the case of Oak Ridge, community business leaders partnered with educators from nine school districts to form the Rural Communities STEM Initiative (RCSI), which provides students with opportunities for hands-on STEM experience. RCSI offers otherwise unavailable opportunities to many students, given that local schools often lack dedicated lab space, and videos were frequently used to supplement lessons in lieu of hands-on experimentation.

Based on feedback from teachers as well as Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program students’ scores, RCSI determined the areas in which students would most benefit from support and then created kits that aligned with their needs. Before delivering Lab-in-a-Box to schools — in quantities that allocated one box for each student — teachers were trained at Roane State Community College on how to incorporate the contents of the box into their lessons.

Using their Labs-in-a-Box, students became engaged science experimenters. This shift, which transformed passive learning (e.g., video-watching) to active learning (e.g., experimenting), proved effective; as of 2013, 85 percent of participating students scored 80 percent or higher on state tests, and almost 80 percent of students said they had an increased interest in STEM after using Lab-in-the-Box in their classrooms.

Purdue University took a similar approach to helping local districts implement and sustain STEM programs. The Purdue University Rural School Network provides more than 60 districts with resources ranging from teacher professional development to internships to student-teacher assistance in STEM subjects. The program relies on distance technologies to promote interdistrict collaboration and support.

Other STEM Initiatives

Jennifer Cahill, of Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a nonprofit organization that provides K–12 schools with STEM curricula, teacher training, and other resources, notes that end-of-course assessments are important for gauging student achievement in STEM, but they are not the only measures of success. According to Cahill, it’s important “to see interaction and engagement from students, who are then inspired and empowered to take ownership of their learning.”

Cahill cited as an example the implementation of PLTW curricula in the Star City, AR school district — one that serves just under 1,700 students, about 65 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. Computer science, engineering, and biomedical PLTW curricula are available for all students, regardless of their grade level or ability. Approximately 50 percent of students take PLTW courses, including those with special education needs. One student in the engineering program, a foster child, found that the program provided much-needed stability, and now plans to pursue an engineering degree in college.

PLTW was also implemented at Toppenish High School on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington state. At Toppenish, 100 percent of the student body is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Once students were required to take at least one PLTW course in either biomedicine or engineering, the school saw a 226 percent increase in the number of students enrolled in precalculus.

PLTW is partner with many organizations in Eastern Kentucky, including East Kentucky Power Cooperative and Morehead State University, to expand PLTW’s STEM curricula in 19 counties, an initiative that would affect more than 80,000 students.

Opportunities for Growth

Though there are obstacles that make it difficult for rural schools to initiate and sustain their STEM programs, the examples above demonstrate that partnerships with outside parties can provide much-needed resources and support.

Rural schools are at a funding disadvantage. In our increasingly technological world, however, STEM needs to be a priority if students are to receive the education they need in these subjects. Educators and parents alike need to understand the vision for their district; it helps to have a multi-year plan that takes into account personnel, resources, and equipment. Staff and parents should also take advantage of whatever networks they have for assistance. And even though it may entail up-front costs, a dynamic marketing plan — that includes an active and up-to-date website — can attract potential partners. Grants are also a great way to cover day-to-day expenses and introduce new concepts.

Local colleges and universities can be strong allies to support STEM subject matter, as can community economic development boards and education foundations.

Ultimately, while rural school districts often face a number of educational challenges — tight budgets, inflexible curricula, and a lack of professional development opportunities — there are thankfully opportunities to overcome those obstacles and help students achieve mastery and enjoyment of STEM subjects.

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