Rural STEM Education

Students and teachers in rural communities often lack access to resources and opportunities that can improve student achievement and representation in STEM. This Spotlight features a perspective piece by Pam Buffington and highlights the work of two projects developing innovative, contextually responsive professional learning experiences.

In this Spotlight...

Rural and Ready: Embracing the Assets and Needs of Rural Schools and Districts

Pam Buffington, Co-Director, Science and Math Programs, EDC

Pam Buffington

Over the last few years, rural schools and communities have received increased visibility in the media and in the broader educational conversation, with depictions of rural places presented in many ways: idyllic due to their natural resources and beauty; characterized, and sometimes villainized, by perceived political leanings; highlighted for their pockets of extreme poverty; or on occasion recognized for their innovative place-based practices. In reality, rural schools and communities can be any or all of these things. Rural residents and their contexts are not monolithic and vary considerably within regions and across the U.S. (Kastelein, Allen, Keller & Mokros, 2018; Showalter, 2017). The schools can also vary considerably based on their location, their geographic and community assets, and their local economies. On average, however, rural schools receive less state funding while their costs can be higher due to busing and other expenses (Showalter et al., 2017); poverty rates in rural communities are climbing (Lavalley, 2018); many schools and communities have limited access to high speed internet; students have more limited access to advanced coursework and advanced technologies, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) domains; they have difficulties recruiting and retaining STEM teachers (Schwartzbeck, Redfield, Morris, & Hammer, 2003; Redfield, Morris, & Hammer, 2003, NCES, 2012; Player, 2015); and in many cases rural STEM teachers need additional training and support to best serve their students in these domains (Barley & Brigham, 2008; Dee & Goldhaber, 2017).

As important, however, is that rural communities have rich cultural histories and include people with deep connections to their natural surroundings. Many members of the community have extensive knowledge and understanding of  STEM applications and practice, both formally and informally, that can be tapped into to enhance the opportunities for students in rural schools. Rural schools often have deeply dedicated teachers and fierce advocates in the community. Thus, equity-oriented STEM improvement efforts can be more powerful if they integrate approaches that acknowledge and respect the “local knowledge, the value of community diversity, and [encourage] collaboration between professionals and local communities, groups, and individuals” (Keefe, 2005). Further, involving rural community members, teachers and students in the design and testing of programs and materials, can enhance the efforts as they can make explicit connections to the physical, historical, and natural surroundings in which they live and work.

Rural students, teachers, and community members can be engaged through various forms of communication (i.e. instant message, e-mail and other web-interfaces, or video-conference as bandwidth allows) and face-to-face as needed. Pre-recorded videos can be used to present and/or share ideas and make connections among and between collaborating members. Existing people networks of rural teachers and school leaders across distances can be used to assist with idea generation, testing, and dissemination. Rural schools, often serving a central role for the community, can function as an activity and communication hub for STEM education initiatives. Evening and weekend events can provide great opportunities to build deeper connections with rural educators and leaders, students and community members.

So, while rural educators and the communities in which they reside face unique challenges, they too provide distinctive opportunities and assets. Rural residents and educators bring knowledge, histories and connections that can strengthen STEM education initiatives. When the complexities of rural spaces are acknowledged and factored in, collaborative partnerships can help to bring external and internal assets together to meet the very real challenges and boost STEM learning and teaching in rural spaces.

Featured Projects

Investigating Fifth Grade Teachers’ Knowledge of Noticing Appalachian Students’ Thinking in Science

PI: Melissa Luna
Grades: PreK-5 (research activities in Grade 5)
STEM Domain: Primarily Science

Target Needs of Rural Populations: Appalachia is rich in cultural and natural resources that could help address 21st Century challenges. Yet Appalachian students underperform and are underrepresented in STEM fields.

Strategy or Approach: Children from “non-dominant communities” (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003)—including Appalachian communities—are particularly affected by issues of equity and access to early science learning opportunities. Therefore, supporting elementary science teaching particularly in Appalachian communities is key, as it can either open up or shut down opportunities for children to learn in science and to pursue science endeavors. An ultimate goal of this research is to impact science teaching in these largely rural communities in order to open up STEM learning opportunities for all children.

In this context, this research examines teachers’ noticing of children’s thinking in science and focuses on designing web-based teacher learning materials surrounding this teaching practice. It is grounded in constructivist and situated theories of how children learn—children draw on their rich and varied cultural resources to form ideas about the natural world and these ideas form the basis for learning in science. Thus, teachers’ noticing of these rich and varied resources embedded in students’ thinking should be central to the work of teaching science. This requires specialized teacher knowledge and skills as it involves noticing students’ thinking so that disciplinary meaning-making is supported.

This project involves both interpretive participant observational research and design-based research methodologies with a goal of building theory of teacher knowledge and practice surrounding noticing that can be leveraged in the design of teacher learning—specific to this Appalachian context. To capture the complexity of teaching practice, this project utilizes wearable video technology to both study and support teacher noticing in practice.

Unexpected Lesson Learned: All of the teachers participating in the project’s research so far have deep West Virginia roots—all were born in WV with one exception who moved to WV when she was two years old. All were raised in Appalachian communities much like the ones from which their students come. Why is this surprising? While data analysis is currently ongoing, what has become clear is that when asked to notice their students’ thinking, these teachers draw on a vast knowledge base of the rich and varied cultural resources their students bring to bear in their science learning and this knowledge base seems to be unique and deeply connected to Appalachia. Further, preliminary findings indicate that these teachers are quite keen at noticing things in their students’ thinking that an “outsider” (such as a researcher) might dismiss or overlook, but these noticed moments actually turn out to be quite significant in science learning. (Again, this is preliminary, but quite interesting if the data shows that Appalachian teachers’ noticing is unique to the Appalachian context.)

Investigating Teachers' Knowledge of NoticingWearable Technology for Data Collection: In order to investigate teachers’ noticing in practice, this research project utilizes wearable video technology (see photo) that enables researchers to collect data of teachers’ in-the-moment noticing while engaged in planning, instruction, and assessment activities. This technology—the TomTom Bandit—involves a wearable point-of-view digital video system ( consisting of two parts: a small video camera with digital storage and a hand-held remote. The camera can be worn by teachers on the bill of a hat in order to capture real time events occurring in practice from their own perspective. In addition, this wearable video technology features recording capability other wearable video cameras lack, making it more powerful in studying teacher noticing in practice. That is, the system allows the user to “tag” the video as it is recording (by pressing a button on the hand-held remote). This button push will mark the video at the precise moment the button was pushed. This recording and tagging capability is important to this study because, when used with teachers in the midst of practice, it allows the teacher to observe a moment, decide that it is worthy of notice, and then immediately after-the-fact capture that moment. The methodological claim here is that equipping teachers with these cameras does indeed provide a window into their noticing practice and the knowledge involved.

Products: Web-Based Teacher Noticing Learning Materials (In Development)

Synchronous Online Professional Learning Experiences for Middle Grades Mathematics Teachers in Rural Contexts (SyncOn)

PI: Jeffrey ChoppinCo-PIs: Julie Amador, Cynthia Callard
Grades: 6-8
STEM Domain: Mathematics

Target Needs of Rural Populations: SyncOn provides high quality online professional development to middle school mathematics teachers in rural contexts who would otherwise have difficulty accessing such opportunities.

Strategy or Approach: We designed a three part online professional development model that utilized a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online experiences. The three parts of the model included online course modules, Teaching Labs, and online video-based coaching. The online course modules emphasized teacher and student discourse moves that facilitate productive mathematical discussions. The Teaching Labs involved lessons we designed to illustrate and make public the practices explored in the online course. We designed the Teaching Labs to minimize participants’ time and scheduling commitments, including the need to be physically present in the classroom. We met via Zoom to review the lesson plan and to explore the tasks and the mathematics embedded in the tasks. A facilitator-coach pair then enacted the lesson, which was video-recorded and made available for teacher-participants to watch asynchronously. In our most recent iteration of the model, we pre-recorded the lessons and conducted the entire teaching lab in one session. We based our online video coaching on Content-Focused Coaching (West & Staub, 2003), which includes a pre-lesson conference, teaching the lesson, and a post-lesson conference. The coach and teacher met via Zoom to discuss and revise the lesson using Google Docs. The teacher then implemented the lesson, recording it with a Swivl robot that rotated to follow the teacher, who wore a marker to signal the robot. The video was uploaded to a Swivl library shared by the teacher and coach, who both annotated the video. The annotations anchored the post-lesson discussion between the coach and teacher.

Unexpected Lesson Learned: We encountered four issues related to working with teachers in rural contexts. First, we needed to consider how long we could hold teachers’ attention for a single synchronous online session. This led us to incorporate regular breakout sessions to break up the overall session into different activities and to allow for small group work. We also off-loaded some of the activities to asynchronous experiences. Second, we needed to establish collegiality and trust among teachers who were too geographically distant to meet face to face. To do this, we included features such as small group discussions that provided increased opportunities for teacher interaction. We also integrated opportunities to do mathematics in this course; we found that debriefing mathematical tasks with others supported a culture of vulnerability and encouraged collegiality among teachers. Third, we needed to establish collegiality and trust between teachers and coaches who would only interact online. To help establish trust, we encouraged both synchronous and asynchronous communication. The teachers emailed the coaches with thoughts and questions, which supported the development of relationships through asynchronous modalities. The one-on-one pre-planning conversations created a space where the teachers received feedback in a non-evaluative way. Fourth, we needed to figure out how to make the Teaching Labs a fully online experience to accommodate the difficulty of traveling to observe lessons. The Teaching Labs now occur in a single two-hour synchronous session that integrates the video viewing and debrief discussions into multiple smaller cycles that integrate the usual plan-observe-reflect components.

Key Challenge: One challenge we have faced is serving teachers in rural areas who live in various time zones. With our model, we provide professional development online synchronously, meaning that participants and our professional development team are available at the same time, and at times that do not conflict with typical teacher schedules. We have settled on 7:00pm EST and 4:00pm PST to overcome this conflict, but recognize that reaching teachers in rural areas across the country means we have to consider our availability in different areas in conjunction with our participants’ availabilities.

Theoretical Framework: We are using multiple theoretical frames. To study the online courses, we are using the Community of Inquiry framework. This allows us to consider the social, teaching, and cognitive presences in the course. We borrow from the work on conjecture mapping (Sandoval, 2014) by using the mediating processes in our conjecture maps as evidence of cognitive presence. For the coaching interviews, we focus on two major types of coaching moves: direct assistance and invitational. This allows us to analyze differences between coaches in terms of how much direct support they give teachers and how much they try to draw from teachers’ own thinking.

Products: Project Video | AMTE 2019 Presentation | Publications - Designing and Research Online Professional Development; Development and Use of a Conjecture Map for Online Professional Development Model

Additional Resources


Barley, Z. & Brigham, N. (2008). Preparing teachers to teach in rural schools. REL 2008-No. 045. Retrieved from

Dee, T. S., & Goldhaber, D. (2017). Understanding and addressing teacher shortages in the United States. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.

Gutiérrez, K. D., & Rogoff, B. (2003). Cultural ways of learning: Individual traits or repertoires of practice. Educational researcher32(5), 19-25.

Kastelein, K., Allen, S., Keller, T.E., & Mokros, J. (2018). The 2018 Rural Informal STEM Conference: Final Report, Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance,

Keefe, S. E. (Ed.). (2005). Appalachian cultural competency: A guide for medical, mental health and social service professionals. Knoxville, TN, US: University of Tennessee Press.

Lavalley, M. (2018). Out of the loop: Rural schools are largely left out of research and policy discussions, exacerbating poverty, inequity, and isolation. Alexandria, VA: The Center for Public Education. Retrieved from

National Center for Education Statistics. 2011. “Table c.1.c Percentage distribution of public elementary, and secondary schools with a teaching vacancy in selected teaching fields, by school’s reported level of difficultyin filling the vacancy, teaching field, and locale:2011-12. “Washington DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Player, D. (2015, March). The supply and demand for rural teachers. Boise, ID: Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho. Retrieved from

Sandoval, W. (2014). Conjecture mapping: An approach to systematic educational design research. Journal of the learning sciences23(1), 18-36.

Showalter, D. (2017). Why rural matters 2015–16  (p. 164). Washington, DC: Rural School and Community Trust.

Schwartzbeck, T. D., Redfield, D., Morris, H., & Hammer, P. C. (2003). How are rural school districts meeting the teacher quality requirements of No Child Left Behind? Charleston, WV: Appalachia Educational Laboratory.

West, L., & Staub, F. C. (2003). Content-focused coaching: Transforming mathematics lessons. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.