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Community counts: Fostering rural STEM education

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Nationally, 1 in 5 students attend school in a rural district. U.S. efforts to improve STEM education may unintentionally have overlooked the unique challenges faced by rural communities. These communities share characteristics, such as high rates of poverty, low student expectations, low teacher pay, and high rates of administration turnover. In addition, dispersed resources, community values, and lack of understanding of the potential of STEM education inhibit change.

We don’t have to read research papers to understand the challenges of rural education. The movie “October Sky” depicts conflicts that arise within a coal-mining town as a group of students work hard to win science competitions by designing, building and testing rockets. Implementing rural STEM programs requires understanding the nature and needs of unique communities.

The Costal Rural Systemic Initiative (CRSI)  represents one effort to create sustained improvement of math and science education along the eastern seaboard. In this region, districts contain few staff with many job functions, lack of highly-qualified educators for STEM disciplines, inadequate data for decision-making, and a host of other challenges. To rectify the situation, and ultimately increase student performance in math and science, CRSI created a model to provide districts with the infrastructure, data and resources designed to withstand personnel changes, make informed decisions, and identify additional resources required for teacher and student success. The initiative relies on Continuous Improvement Teams to implement and manage an eight-step process from data collection to intervention implementation.

Source: Blanton, Roy E. and Hobart L. Harmon, Building Capacity for Continuous Improvement of Math and Science Education in Rural Schools, Rural Educator, 2005


A second study  of rural STEM education in Appalachia by April D. Haight and Wilson J. Gonzalez-Espada reinforces existing research on the importance of placing science and math education in relevant and accessible contexts during teacher professional development and classroom learning. In addition, the authors note that in rural communities “geographic or social mobility” conflicts with strong ties to family and friends. Even so, many youth leave home for larger, urban settings; they often depart unprepared and undereducated to meet the expectations of the new environment.

Far to the west of Appalachia, rural communities in Colorado experience similar challenges. Dan Morris, executive director of eNetColorado, explains that the conversation around STEM education in Colorado often unwittingly excludes 80% of school districts — those effectively rural in nature. According to Tod Lokey, director of online learning for the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), while wonderful resources exist within the region, few students can access them due to district boundaries. He points out that in large urban and suburban districts students transfer schools to attend specialized programs and achieve their goals. Most rural students do not have that luxury. One study of high-school mathematics courses shows that students in urban districts have access to twice as many advanced math courses as their rural peers .

Source: Graham, Susanne E., Carsey Institute, University of New Hampshire, Issue Brief NO. 7, Fall 2009.

Large districts draw upon resources and talent to concentrate excellence in STEM and arts education creating academies and vocational schools. In the San Juan BOCES region, many pockets of excellence exist. Unfortunately, because of a district-based system of education, administrative and financial barriers often preclude students from taking advantage out-of-district resources.

Dawn Olson, superintendent of the Huerfano School District Re-1 in Colorado, sees computer technology and Internet access as a way to achieve equity and access in rural communities. According to Olson, students must have access to the technology and resources of the 21st century. She asks, “What world are we preparing students for? If they do not learn to access information and use technology, they face limited futures.” Formerly a teacher and principal in a rural South Dakota school, Olson participated in a statewide effort to modernize and outfit schools with the latest resources. After many years in South Dakota, Olson accepted the role of superintendent in in the Huerfano School District. When asked to compare computer and technology access and use between the two states, Olson expressed surprise at the lack of resources and use of technology in some rural areas of Colorado. She attributes the difference to the efforts of a strategic governor in South Dakota and other leaders in the mid 1990’s who made access a priority.

In Grand Junction, Colo., the John McConnell Math & Science Center testifies to the passion of individuals for improving rural STEM education. A retired physicist, McConnell began as a volunteer and mentor in local schools. Soon McConnell and his wife, Audrey, found themselves traveling widely to bring hands-on, inquiry-based activities to schools throughout the rural west. They visited schools with as few as six students and districts where an 80-mile bus ride was the daily norm. They founded the Center in 2000, starting in a local elementary school.Expanded and renamed, the Center provides teachers with the training and resources to replicate the many hands-on activities McConnell developed to simplify complex scientific concepts and actively engage students. Today, the Center houses exhibits and provides life-long learning opportunities for the community.

Like LEGO pieces, rural communities need to snap together resources to create a lasting and effective STEM education infrastructure. Developing a data-driven, blueprint provides an important foundation for improvement. The challenge may require rural communities to dissolve traditional district boundaries, adopt and train educators in the effective use of technology and distance learning, and partner with members of the community, local industry and post-secondary education.

Doug Haller is the principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller is an education consultant specializing in strategic planning and market analysis to drive design, development and sales of niche education products for clients in the for-profit, nonprofit, and education and public outreach fields. His creative approach is based on years of practical experience as an educator, instructional designer and education consultant. Check out his blog, STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.


Blanton, Roy E. and Hobart L. Harmon, Building Capacity for Continuous Improvement of Math and Science Education in Rural Schools, Rural Educator, 2005.

Graham, Susanne E., Carsey Institute, University of New Hampshire, Issue Brief NO. 7, Fall 2009.

Haight, April D. and Wilson J. Gonzalez-Espada, Scientific Literacy in Central Appalachia Through Contextually Relevant Experiences: The “Reading the River” Project, International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, Vol. 4, No. 3, July 2009, 215-230.