Innovative Programs Expose Rural Students to Opportunities in STEM

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Faced with a lack of educational resources and limited job opportunities, students from rural areas of the country increasingly fall behind their urban peers when it comes to college readiness and enrollment; participation in postsecondary education is 36.2 percent less likely for rural youth than non-rural youth, according to a 12-year longitudinal study that tracked student outcomes from 1988 to 2000. When it comes to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) — industries that struggle to find qualified professionals to work in non-metropolitan areas — the rate at which rural students are participating in these fields is unknown.

In an effort to ensure better educational outcomes while also meeting industry workforce demands, some organizations and institutions are using specially designed programs to increase awareness of educational and career opportunities in STEM among K-12 students in some of the country’s most rural, under-resourced communities.

Connecting Education to Careers
In West Texas, the Texas STEM Degree Accelerator Program (TSDAP) prepares students to enter the pipeline of highly skilled workers that are continuously needed by the region’s energy, healthcare, and manufacturing industries. A statewide effort overseen by the foundation Educate Texas, the program relies on teams of K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and industry partners to address educational and workforce needs by region. While metropolitan areas are the focus of most other TSDAP teams, West Texas is extremely rural, with most counties being vast in geographic area but low in population density.

Roy Bartels

“In a rural area like ours, most students are going to want to stay in their hometowns, but if you live in a place with 1,000 people, that’s obviously not going to give you a lot of opportunities,” says Roy Bartels, a TSDAP coordinator and chief technology and information security officer for Western Texas College (WTC) — a program partner. “Our job is to encourage students to stay in the region by helping them find the STEM jobs that exist here and that fit their interests.”

Two years ago, Bartels helped launch the West Texas team in partnership with area organizations representing local industries — known as workforce partners — along with the region’s six major community colleges and multiple K-12 school districts. Working directly with the workforce partners, the schools and colleges know exactly what STEM skills and credentials local employers are seeking, Bartels says. This gives the team the ability to help students align their interests with the proper courses and degree programs that will qualify them for in-demand STEM careers, he explains.

Kelley Garbee

Being in a rural area, of course, poses unique challenges for TSDAP, which means the team has to come up with creative solutions to meet the specific needs of the region, explains Kelty Garbee, PhD, deputy director of programs for Educate Texas.

“One of the challenges in West Texas is proximity to higher education. Another is having enough people to form a critical mass to get the attention of a funder or a higher education or workforce partner,” says Garbee. “So what you see when organizations in rural areas like this come together is that they’re able to collaborate and pool resources across K-12 districts and higher education institutions.”

To deal with the issue of limited access to professional development opportunities, the West Texas Energy Consortium — a TSDAP major workforce partner — annually hosts a STEM teacher-training event for educators across the region. The event provides a space for K-12 teachers to collaborate with school administrators and local employers on how to prepare students who are interested in STEM to enter the local workforce.

Furthermore, the West Texas TSDAP team is in the process of creating what Bartels calls a “virtual STEM resource center” that will make information on the area’s STEM resources and job opportunities accessible to the entire region. The website will also help interested students determine the area of study they want to pursue and which of the region’s six community colleges to attend. Relying on the joint efforts of multiple organizations across a large area, the online resource center exemplifies the spirit of solidarity that has characterized all of the team’s efforts, Bartels says.

“It’s been quite a process, because organizing and working on such a large regional scale was something that had not been done before,” he says of the West Texas project, which is preparing to enter its third year. “It’s made a big difference because we see how each campus and organization can contribute so that everybody in the region can benefit.” Bartels says that he and his team are just now beginning to gather information to assess the program’s overall impact on students and the region.

Jodi Prosise

An Introduction to Engineering
Jodi Prosise, PhD, chair of the engineering department at Saint Ambrose University (SAU) in Davenport, Iowa, believes that rural students are motivated to engage with STEM education when they can see how the subject matter affects the world outside of their classroom.

For the past five years, she and her colleagues have traveled to rural high schools across eastern Iowa and western Illinois as part of a recruitment initiative that has helped nearly triple the number of SAU engineering majors. “We do a lot of lectures and activities that make students see that engineering can change the world and make it a better place,” Prosise says. “The [most surprising] thing we hear is that they had no idea [of] the types of things that engineers can actually do.”

During these high school visits, SAU engineering faculty and graduate students offer guided activities that introduce the basics of the engineering profession and allow students to engage in hands-on projects. “We walk them through the design process and present them with a problem to help improve someone’s life, like creating a device to help a person in a wheelchair reach things out of his or her grasp,” Prosise explains. “We help the students come up with requirements and specifications, do some brainstorming, develop a design, and make a prototype out of simple classroom materials.”

She says the participants are always surprised at the amount of creativity involved in the projects and at their own ability to design objects that can improve lives.

Having grown up in the region, Prosise says she relates to the students, many of whom know very little about most STEM professions. “I grew up in a small town not knowing what engineering was, and whenever I go back there, people think I must drive trains,” she says. “There are so many farm kids who do things like work on machinery and who have great potential, but they don’t even know that they can have a career doing something like this.”

In addition to high school visits, the SAU engineering department hosts several on-campus events for K-12 students from the surrounding rural areas, including a summer camp for junior high children and an engineering carnival for girls in elementary school. The university also partners with several corporations headquartered in the region, including Deere and Company — better known as John Deere — to provide students with engineering mentors and internships, says Prosise.

A teacher assists students in PTLW’s engineering program at Toppenish High School in Washington state.

Improving Educational Attainment
An educational nonprofit organization, Project Lead the Way (PLTW) brings career-focused biomedicine, computer science, and engineering education to more than 9,000 underserved schools nationwide — 20 percent of which are in rural areas. For schools enrolled in its programs, PLTW provides grade-appropriate curricula and teacher professional development no matter how remote the school’s location, says Jennifer Erbacher, senior director of media and public relations.

PLTW also works with higher education institutions and industry partners to ensure that rural schools have the ability to purchase advanced STEM equipment and technologies. With curricula designed by PLTW and classroom resources made possible by partners, low-income rural students are able to perform experiments in DNA testing, design and build robots, and more.

Left: Students use lab equipment provided by PLTW.

“Our mission is to empower students with the skills they need to thrive in our evolving world,” says Erbacher. “We want them to take the knowledge they’re learning in math and science and use it to solve real-world problems that make that knowledge relevant.”

By making learning exciting, she explains, PLTW improves college readiness and motivates rural students to pursue more rigorous academic experiences. In the small community of Star City, Ark., for example, enrollment in AP courses rose 38 percent after the school district — composed of approximately 1,700 students — introduced PLTW coursework for grades K-12. Electives in biomedicine and engineering were so popular that the high school had to hire additional science faculty, and according to a report by Superintendent Richard Montgomery, PhD, the program has helped create a “culture of expectations” for success.

PLTW has experienced similar progress in Toppenish, Wash., a town of 1,897 residents, where 95 percent of students are minorities and 99 percent receive free or reduced lunches. After introducing PLTW courses to K-12 schools in the area, Toppenish raised its collective graduation rate to 94 percent — an impressive achievement for a town where one-third of parents don’t have a high school diploma. “Students are able to grasp new concepts … and to see why learning math and other subjects is relevant to and can actually be applied in the real world,” says Arnulfo Gonzalez, a teacher at Toppenish High School.

Toppenish High School students in a biomedical class

Recently, PLTW launched one of its largest rural programs, the Rural Spark Project, which involves 27 non-metropolitan Illinois schools. The project, which is funded by the educational nonprofit Astellas USA, is unique in its scope, says Erbacher. “Astellas really wants to put STEM education into targeted rural areas and support teacher training and learning opportunities in classrooms that might not otherwise have the resources,” she says. “It’s really important to us that students get the same opportunities no matter where they live, and the Rural Spark Project helps guarantee that.”

This summer, hundreds of teachers from the project’s participating schools received training and materials to lead the kinds of hands-on, concrete learning experiences PLTW’s success is built on. Studies have shown that these types of activities are particularly motivating for students in rural areas, who find learning more relevant when it’s linked to real-life, problem-solving work.

In addition, a study by the Carnegie Science Center found that STEM disciplines appeal more to rural students and their parents when linked to concrete career opportunities, such as in programs like those facilitated by TSDAP, SAU, and PLTW. Efforts such as these stand to play an important role in rural communities as STEM-based industries like agriscience and telecommunications increasingly need qualified professionals willing to live and work in non-metropolitan areas.

Through these and other STEM outreach initiatives, which make it possible for rural students to connect classroom learning with viable career opportunities close to home, STEM education has the power to transform the educational and career outcomes of rural America.●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.