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STEM for small-town schools

Rural districts bolster math and science programs with new funding sources, technology and powerful partnerships
  • STREAMING INSTRUCTION—Lessons on sustainability and the food industry fuel the study of aquaponics at Graham Local Schools in Ohio. Above, an elementary school student releases trout that were hatched and raised by fourth- and fifth-grade classes.
  • PLACE IN THE WORLD—Students at Graham Local Schools and district partners inspect Geographic Information Systems equipment.
  • COMPUTER SAVVY—Students in rural Polk County Schools in southeastern Tennessee use classroom iPads the district acquired through a corporate grant.
  • COMPUTER SAVVY—High school students in Putnam County, Florida, code a website they developed for a local nonprofit.

Every spring, Graham Local Schools fourth- and fifth-graders hatch and release trout during a unit that covers aquaponics, hydroponics and conservation. Older students raise corn and soybeans on a sustainable farm operated by the rural district in southwest Ohio.

Teachers in the Jim Thorpe Area School District in Pennsylvania have incorporated software such as GarageBand into a middle school music-theory class.

And astronauts aboard the International Space Station recently conducted an experiment that was designed by seventh-graders from the Winfield City Schools in Alabama.

In rural districts like these, STEM is alive and well. But across the country, rural schools face serious challenges as they strive to educate their students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—disciplines whose critical importance dominates education policy and economic development circles.


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Certainly, districts of all kinds face the challenge of delivering coherent and high-quality STEM education.

But “there’s an inequity of services and attention to rural areas,” says Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association.

To overcome the geographic, fiscal and cultural obstacles, rural superintendents employ an array of strategies: tapping new funding sources; partnering with businesses, universities and community groups; and exploiting technology.

Educators and advocates say such efforts are essential to ensuring that rural students thrive in the wider world.

“The resource issue, more than anything, means that rural kids are less prepared than urban kids,” says Jim Denova, vice president of the Pittsburgh-based Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, whose grants fund human development projects in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania.

“If they don’t have the science laboratories, if they don’t have the highly qualified teachers, they’re behind the curve for postsecondary preparation,” Denova says.

Working in isolation

Rural superintendents are tapping new funding sources or repurposing existing allocations. Keith Davis, superintendent of Alabama’s 1,275-student Winfield City Schools, used state money to help pay for a $250,000 investment in interactive whiteboards, infrastructure and 1-to-1 devices.

He also redirected some monies that had been allocated for print.

Yet nearly 8.9 million children—close to 20 percent of American public school students—attend rural schools. As these districts seek to provide STEM education, they often face shortfalls in resources that other systems take for granted.

Enrollment declines can sap state funding. Lab space and equipment are sometimes scarce. One-to-one laptop programs may be prohibitively expensive, and not every rural student goes home to broadband internet access or even reliable cell phone service.

Most crippling, however, is a shortage of teachers who are qualified to deliver STEM instruction. This nationwide problem hits cash-strapped or rural districts especially hard.

In the 2,400-student Polk County Schools in southeastern Tennessee, where enrollment is falling and a national forest bisects the district, only one of the two high schools offers physics. Even there, the course’s status is precarious.

“Honestly, it’s been a little bit of a struggle to keep that class alive,” says Jason Bell, Polk County’s secondary supervisor and president of the National Rural Education Association.

“If that teacher ever left, we’d have a hard time finding another.”

As for students who want to study physics at the other high school, “they don’t right now,” Bell says.

Cultural factors also complicate rural schools’ efforts to persuade families that STEM learning is crucial.

Rural residents often see STEM as under the purview of “the rocket scientists, the engineers—the jobs that aren’t here,” says Steve Krak, a consultant who helps create STEM Learning Ecosystems, a foundation funded effort to link schools with community partners.

“We want them to know the professionals who are the welders, who are the construction managers, who are the operators of drilling equipment—they are STEM also,” Krak says.

Powered by partnerships

Given the challenges they face, rural districts shouldn’t go it alone. Partnerships with universities, businesses, community groups and other school districts “can bring additional faculty, additional expertise, and equipment that can be industry sponsored,” says Denova of the Benedum Foundation.

“Looking outside for those partners may be the key to the superintendent’s dilemma.”

Partners can be national. The nonprofit arm of agribusiness company Monsanto gave Ohio’s 1,900-student Graham Local Schools a grant to launch a sustainable farm.

Bell’s Tennessee district applied for and won a two-year Verizon grant that put iPads with monthly data plans into the hands of middle schoolers and their teachers—technology that neighboring districts already had, but that seemed out of reach for Polk County.

Without the grant, “we would have had to phase this in over multiple years,” Bell says. “And then the data portion of it—I just don’t see how we would ever have been able to fit that into our budget.”

Just as often, partners can be local. In eastern Tennessee, nine rural school districts participate in Roane State Community College’s Lab in a Box program, which supplies tote bags containing all the materials necessary for hands-on middle school science lessons on topics ranging from fossils to robotics.

The college also provides free teacher training, funded by donations from individuals and businesses.

The Jim Thorpe Area School District collaborated with a well-established, local after-school program to fund makerspaces for classroom projects and after-school activities.

“Now we have a continuum from basically 8 a.m. all the way through to about 6:30 p.m.,” says Superintendent Brian J. Gasper.

The 11,000-student Putnam County School District in northeast Florida joined a local STEM Learning Ecosystem, which connects schools to colleges, businesses, after-school providers and government.

“We actively sought out participation in this because we don’t have that level of funding available to us in our county,” says Melissa Coleman, the district’s director of federal programs and instructional acceleration. “There just aren’t the businesses.”

Through the STEM ecosystem, Coleman connected with the president of Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History, which is too far away for field trips. The museum sent staff to Putnam County to give fifth-graders an in-school lesson on energy.

Last year, the district offered its first-Advanced Placement computer science classes after a college in the ecosystem won a grant to train teachers at no cost to the district.

Graham Local Schools used state grants to launch and sustain its trout project, and received additional help from a state official, a retired university professor, a local farm and a national nonprofit devoted to fish conservation.

“If you’re not partnering with someone locally, why not?” asks Graham Superintendent Kirk Koennecke.

‘Beaming in’ lessons

Technology can compensate for resource shortages in rural districts.

Online, free or low-cost curricular materials abound: NASA uses simulations to deliver lessons on space travel and ocean conservation to rural schools that do not have labs, and Museum of Science, Boston offers an engineering curriculum that starts in preschool.

Districts are finding technological fixes for STEM teacher shortages as well. In Coleman’s Florida district, one of the four high schools lacks a chemistry teacher, so she is seeking grant money to pay for classroom telecommunications equipment to beam in lessons from another school.

In North Dakota, the National Math and Science Initiative—a college readiness program that works to bring AP STEM classes to districts across the country—is partnering with the state education department to give students virtual courses and one-on-one help from an online teacher.

“They may not have a biology teacher on their campus,” says Toni Schneider, a program manager for the National Math and Science Initiative. “We don’t want that to be an obstacle for students.”

Reviving communities

In struggling rural communities where jobs are scarce and children often grow up only to leave, STEM education holds special promise, educators and advocates say—a promise of both escape and return.

STEM has “the power in small and rural districts to transform how students see the world beyond their small-town upbringing,” says Koennecke of Graham Local Schools.

“STEM education can really open the eyes of a student from a rural upbringing and just expand possibilities for them.”

Paradoxically, while STEM may provide rural students with a pathway to the wider world, it can also give them a way to stay and rebuild their hometowns, educators say.

“As our world expands into more and more jobs not being constrained by the physical environment, that provides an opportunity for our rural students to access jobs they can do from home; they can live in their small community,” Coleman says. “If we prepare them, they can be qualified for careers that would not in the future necessitate them moving out.”


Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.