The Challenge of Teaching Science in Rural America

In districts where distances are wide and budgets are tight, even the most basic chemistry lab may be out of reach.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

When seventh-grade teachers instruct students about chemical reactions and precipitates, they supplement their instruction with labs. Baking soda and calcium chloride mix with water to create a solid and a gas, and students calculate the speed of the process and formula for the resulting chemical using equations.

But what if the teacher didn’t have the background to explain why the precipitate formed—and was, in fact, just filling in from another department? For that matter, what if the school didn’t have any lab facilities at all?

Rural schools face different problems than urban schools when it comes to improving their instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Many of the issues are based in financial constraints but take on different forms than they do in similarly strapped urban districts. To help these schools, administrators from a consortium of rural communities have found new ways to make STEM classes better for teachers and students, both through their own ingenuity and by reaching out to other organizations.

In the 2010-2011 school year, rural students made up about a quarter of all students enrolled in public schools in the United States. These rural districts tend to be less wealthy than urban or suburban ones, so facilities and infrastructure are limited. Transportation costs are higher because students live farther away. Fewer students are enrolled in each school, which means that, when administrators apply for federal grants to pay for technology and special education classes, they don’t have enough clout to make a difference. While the educators don’t necessarily strive to send every kid to college, they are working hard to give students a sufficient understanding of STEM topics as a baseline for future work and education.

With fewer students per school and limited funding to match, rural school districts have been behind in STEM education. “Rural districts are particularly concerned because, as we’re getting into 21st century learning, they’re having a hard time keeping up, largely due to money as well as [teacher] recruitment and retention issues,” said Denise Harshbarger, the supervisor for special projects at the North East Florida Education Consortium, an organization that represents the shared issues of 15 rural districts.

Recruitment is a major issue. “I think our biggest challenge has been finding teachers who are willing to work in a rural community, which traditionally means their salary will be slightly lower than in nearby larger districts,” Harshbarger said. “And if you don’t have the teachers who are really able to know STEM subjects and be able to transfer that to students, then you’re not going to be able catch students up with the curve.”

Diane Ward is the Vice President for Student Learning and Chief Academic Officer for Roane State Community College, which partnered with the Rural Communities STEM Initiative that serves the interests of nine rural districts in Tennessee. For Ward, the personnel issue was most apparent in middle school science classrooms. The schools have great teachers, she said, but some seventh and eighth grade science teachers don’t have in-depth knowledge about scientific topics because they’ve been moved from the multidisciplinary classrooms of younger grades. In many cases, teachers with enough knowledge in one area might be forced to take on other specialties because of understaffing. “And even though teachers may have a working knowledge in some areas of STEM, it may not be in-depth enough to teach a class in another STEM area,” Ward added.

Staffing problems are compounded by a lack of facilities. “In a very rural areas, for middle schools in particular, there simply are no labs,” Ward said. No understanding of STEM concepts can be complete without a grasp of their application, and hands-on labs can do wonders to reinforce these concepts, Ward added.

In Florida, educators are more concerned about the lack of digital technology in their schools. “The advancement we’ve seen in digital learning for STEM education in the past few years has taken on a whole new meaning,” Harshbarger said. “It’s really a culture shift toward student-centered, almost personalized learning, and we’re at that bleeding edge [of integrating this technology] in lots of districts now.” In the near future, rural districts will take a hard look at what technology is needed to augment their curricula and try to get the necessary funding to afford it.

Some districts have sought additional grants to make their infrastructure match the level of instruction their students need. But others have entered partnerships with local businesses that lend students their time, money, and resources. In the nine Tennessee districts involved in the Rural Communities Stem Initiative, Ward said, a meeting of local educators, administrators, parents and business owners posed the question: What can we do to help with STEM education? “Everyone’s expectation was for the school systems to request a check from the businesses, but they got a very different answer,” she said.

Many rural districts that partner with local businesses rely on professionals’ time and expertise to help teach students. “Business partners are really amazing because they can give kids a look at the day-to-day of different STEM careers and what they actually entail,” Harshbarger said. This can be a useful lesson for students who are bound for college and those who will enter the job market after high school.

Ward sees business partners as a way to help teachers reinforce their classroom lessons, like a lab could under different circumstances. “Teachers may have the book knowledge for math but may not be able to teach how it applies to carpentry work, for example, to show the application of triangles in carpentry,” Ward said. “Someone who is a builder can explain the importance of the angles and makes things feel real.”

But business partners aren’t enough; consortium organizations like Ward’s and Harshbarger’s have thought creatively and come up with ways to supplement their limited resources on their own. “We came up with Lab-in-a-Box,” Ward said. “They’re basically hands-on labs that provide teachers with everything from lesson plans, to materials lists, to handouts—it’s everything they would need to do that lab with students.” The kits are cheap to replenish, she added, so teachers can use them over the course of several years. Ward said she has already been contacted by several school districts in other states and has plans to scale up the enterprise.

In Florida, Harshbarger said that districts have focused more on connecting students to the larger world with video and teleconferences. “That opens a whole new realm of possibilities for teachers and students,” she said.

Although they want the best education possible for their students, educators in rural districts often have to be realistic about the prospect of sending students to college. “We are certainly acknowledge that not every student needs to go to college—that’s not something we try to preach,” Harshbarger said. “What we see is that these students like to stay close to home, so whatever opportunities they’re comfortable with in rural districts, those tends to be the careers they gravitate towards,” such as lumber and trucking.

No matter if students stay close to home or pursue careers farther afield, educators in rural districts agree that education should expose students to the career possibilities that may not be immediately in front of them. “There’s a lot of hidden talent within our district, and we want to make sure kids get what they need so they can choose a career based on not what is immediate, but what they want and love,” Harshbarger said.