Rural STEM Education

School bus on a rural roadThe projects described here are all connected by the goal of providing equitable and high-quality STEM education opportunities to rural students. Through the development of place-based learning, online professional development platforms, innovative lesson study models, interactive digital learning tools, immersive STEM learning opportunities, and more, each project seeks to provide rural students with meaningful and engaging learning experiences that are grounded in students' local communities and draw on STEM knowledge and practices to better understand natural phenomena and respond to local and global challenges.

In this Spotlight...

Read the 2019 Spotlight Blog, Featured Projects, and Additional Resources.

Blog | Place Matters: Preparing STEM Teachers for Rural Schools

Devon Brenner, Director of Social Science Research Center; Professor of Education, Mississippi State University

Devon Brenner

About half of all school districts in the U.S. are in rural places, serving about one in five students (Showalter, et al., 2019). Rural schools can be amazing places to teach, with opportunities for strong family and community connections, and to make a real difference for students. Rural schools also have challenges—isolation, higher poverty rates, and a general perception that success means escaping to more urban places—that contribute to rural STEM teacher shortages (Gagnon & Mattingly, 2015).

A growing community is investigating how place matters in teacher education…Read more.


Featured Projects

Build it Green! LogoBuild It Green!: Enhancing Middle School Science Education Through an Energy Efficient Building Design Curriculum

PI: Laura Zangori
Grade Levels: Middle School (6–8)
STEM Disciplines: Engineering and Science

Description of project: Our project seeks to help students understand connections between human energy consumption within the built environment and global carbon emissions. In the U.S., buildings contribute approximately 40% of the total carbon emissions released into the atmosphere globally. Despite the sizable environmental impact of buildings, learning about how energy is harnessed and used within the built environment is rarely available within science lessons. Our project is situated within this space to (1) design a middle school unit called Build It Green! (BIG!). BIG! is an engineering unit that forefronts energy literacy. It consists of both classroom experiences and digital interactive learning tools and visualizations for students to investigate energy systems in the built environment, figure out how and why human made structures use energy, and consider how to reduce energy needs in the built environment. The interactive learning tools and visualizations within the unit allow students to iterate engineering building design choices and consider how those choices impact energy flow and use; (2) recruit and partner with rural middle school teachers within Missouri to implement BIG! (In Missouri, 63% of school districts are identified as rural. Our focus with BIG! is to recruit and support rural teachers in localizing the unit for use in their classrooms.); and (3) engage in exploratory research to investigate how BIG! improves middle school students’ (a) understanding of energy flow with an emphasis on systems knowledge and (b) investigate energy use in buildings in their communities.

How does your approach particularly and innovatively address issues of rural STEM education: Rural districts are underserved populations for STEM interventions, with frequent staffing issues for STEM courses. This challenge presents a crucial equity issue as student expectations in STEM are increasing, yet rural students may not have access to the necessary resources and opportunities to build their STEM learning. Simultaneously, rural populations carry the brunt of the outcomes of U.S. citizens’ energy decisions, such as oil and gas drilling that result in environmental effects that affect the health and wellness of the individuals that live and work in these communities. At the same time, rural districts may also be the location of wind and solar farms with the unique potential of providing access to real-world examples of both renewable and non-renewable energy resources. Awareness of this spectrum of more- and less-clean energy sources is important for students to become future advocates for how their communities are used to supply energy and harvest energy.  

Initial findings: We are almost done with year one of the grant. We don’t yet have findings but are working on unit development.

Product: Current Website

Cultivating Relationships logoCultivating Relationships: Partnering with Teachers and Tribes to Integrate Indigenous and School STEM Knowledge

PI: Vanessa Anthony-Stevens
Grade Levels: K-12
STEM Disciplines: Interdisciplinary approach to braiding STEM subjects with social sciences, cultural arts, and humanities

Description of project: Cultivating Relationships (CR) is a multiyear learning process where K-12 teachers partner with Tribal Nations and university researchers to examine the relationships between people, place, lands, and waters. In collaboration with four Tribal Nations—Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Nez Perce Tribe, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and the San Carlos Apache Tribe—64 CR teachers will engage in a 15-credit land-based and online professional cohort learning process to design and apply curriculum that centers Indigenous science and engagement in sustainable futures for all learners in K-12 classrooms. Past research has shown that STEM lessons ignore Indigenous principles that shaped thousands of years of sustainable land management practices, even as Tribal Nations are often leading innovations in sustainable land and water management against the current of human-caused climate change. These efforts and practices are rarely included in teacher education and classroom curriculum. As Tribal Nations seek to ensure their Nations’ youth can access ancestral community knowledge and STEM training in supportive and innovative ways, teacher professional development must work as a partner between Tribal Nations and classroom-based knowledges. Our project has three main goals: (1) to co-design a cross-site partnership for teacher professional development with unifying and site-specific content; (2) to implement site-specific immersive STEM learning opportunities for teachers and a wrap-around professional development certificate program to support pedagogical understanding; and (3) to research the impact of CR’s land-based curriculum on teachers’ trajectories of learning and pedagogical choices in the classroom.

How does your approach particularly and innovatively address issues of rural STEM education: The rural/urban spatial divide is a colonial concept of modernity that frames rural as static, deficit space for resource extraction and human consumption, or romanticizes wild places as untouched by humans. Contemporary conversations about the needs within rural education do not often critically analyze settler colonialism and the displacement of Indigenous peoples to make space for colonial governance. We choose to speak of our approach to innovating STEM education through the lens of Land-education. Land-education centers learning in relationship with place (McCoy et al., 2017), and specifically Land (with a capital L). Mohawk scholar Sandra Styres (2019) writes that “space is empty and abstract, whereas place is concrete, sensed, and grounded in lived experiences and realties” (p. 26). Styres further explains that Land is more than geographic location but a primary teacher of intimate, sacred, and ancient knowledge. Pedagogies of Land draw upon the interconnectedness and interdependence of relationships between humans, other living beings and more than living beings, and bring into relief an understanding of the cultural positioning and subjectivities of Land relationships which shape and ground learners in specific environments, knowledge systems, and communities (Styres et al., 2013). CR works primarily with teachers and students in places demographically characterized as rural; however, our Land-education approach to STEM is a pedagogical innovation that benefits all learners while working to counter the erasure of Indigenous knowledge in STEM and forward place-conscious STEM education.

Initial findings: The foundation of our project contributes to paradigm shifts in University-School-Tribal Nation partnerships. The paradigm shift in how institutions of schooling (K-12 and higher education) think about knowledge and make space to conceptualize various modes of knowledge production, re-frames the role of land, community, language, and ancestral knowledge in academic learning. Initial contributions of our work include the co-design of our CR curriculum and articulations of the foundational theories behind our collaborative work, can be found here in Anthropology News.

Because our project is in year one, findings on teacher perception and practice are forthcoming in years two and three. Our work is just beginning, and to be continued....

Products: Cultivating Relationships Website

Developing Pedagogical Skills and Science Expertise logoDeveloping the Pedagogical Skills and Science Expertise of Teachers in Underserved Rural Settings

PI: Rebecca Sansom
Grade Levels: High School, Middle School
STEM Disciplines: Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, and Integrated Science

Description of project: The 3D-RST project aims to implement and investigate Technology-Mediated Lesson Study (TMLS) as a professional learning model for rural science teachers to support three-dimensional (3D) science teaching. TMLS builds on what is known about effective professional learning by being ongoing, collaborative, embedded, and focused on practice. TMLS also incorporates technology to allow for remote classroom observations, lesson feedback, and collaborative meetings that otherwise would not be possible because of the large geographic distances between rural schools and teachers. We have three main goals: (1) People: increasing capacity for 3D science teaching among rural science teachers and supporting a professional network for collaboration; (2) Principles: characterizing the key components of TMLS as a professional learning model and understanding how and why it supports science teacher professional learning; and (3) Products: high quality, NGSS-aligned science lesson plans built on phenomena meaningful to rural students that can be shared broadly. We are studying this intervention using mixed methods that include case studies and social network analysis. 

How does your approach particularly and innovatively address issues of rural STEM education: 3D-RST is designed to overcome common challenges that exist for rural science teachers, including lack of access to professional development that occurs in larger cities or close to urban centers, professional isolation that is common when a teacher is the only science teacher or only teacher of a particular subject in a school or district, and lack of professional support systems that allow teachers to get help when needed. TMLS is opening doors for teachers to engage with like-minded colleagues from around the state to collaboratively design lesson plans around 3D science. 

Initial findings: Our social network analysis has unveiled the extreme professional isolation experienced by rural science teachers. Looking at more formal interactions, such as collaboration, most teachers reported zero or one colleague with whom they collaborate, and the numbers drop sharply when we only consider collaborations that occur at least monthly. Looking at less formal interactions, such as advice seeking, most teachers also reported zero or one colleague. Additionally, when looking at predictors of collegial ties, homophily is not predictive, while propinquity is strongly predictive. This indicates that the physical, geographic distances between teachers are the largest barriers that need to be overcome to support healthier professional networks. 


  • Project website that includes lesson plans for teachers to use
  • Presentation at AERA's Saturday morning roundtables: "Unpacking the Isolation of Rural Science Teachers"
  • Upcoming presentations at ICLS Conference: "Technology-Mediated Lesson Study: Facilitating Three-Dimensional Science with Rural Science Teachers” and "Rural Science Teachers Collaborative Design and Iterative Implementation of Three-Dimensional Lessons”
  • Upcoming presentation at DRK-12 PI Meeting: "Professional Development for Culturally Responsive STEM Teaching in Diverse Rural Communities"
  • Two manuscripts in preparation, one describing the results of our initial social network analysis and one describing the process of TMLS

Science Comprehensive Online Learning Platform logoDeveloping the Science Comprehensive Online Learning Platform for Rural School Science Teacher Development

PI: Brooke Moore
Grade Level: Middle School (6–9)
STEM Discipline: Biology 

Description of project: High-quality professional development (PD) is a proven approach in supporting science educators. We know that content-focused PD increases the academic achievement of students. Yet, most PD opportunities provided to STEM educators are face-to-face. In rural, geographically dispersed school districts, access to high-quality, face-to-face PD is challenging. Physical distance from universities and other outside providers is a significant barrier. Recognizing the value and benefit of PD in fostering teachers’ use of evidence-based instructional approaches in science education, we argue that it is important to design PD that effectively and economically brings teachers in isolated and diverse rural communities together to improve science instruction. Our project focuses on middle-school science teachers working in rural communities in southwestern Kansas and serving students with high needs (i.e., living in poverty, English learners, culturally diverse, migrant). The goal of our project is to develop an online PD model and assess its effectiveness as compared to an aligned face-to-face PD in supporting change in teacher conceptual understanding and self-efficacy in utilizing Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). 

How does your approach particularly and innovatively address issues of rural STEM education: Our university is located in rural, western Kansas and has a history of supporting online learning. Based on our experience working with rural schools and online learning, as well as current research in replacing face-to-face with online PD, we know that tools exist to support collaborative efforts in PD, but they are not comprehensive in nature. We argue for a re-visioning of online PD using current and emerging technologies that can be utilized by rural schools to connect teachers (collaboration) and disciplinary content (engaged in learning) with a pedagogical specialist in an online learning environment. Our initial findings have implications for informing the research base on rural school education and essential needs for online PD and learning community building to support fidelity of implementation of professional learning to the classroom. 

Initial findings: Initial findings confirm our hypothesis: Online PD is as effective as traditional face-to-face PD in improving teacher self-efficacy in using NGSS approaches, in supporting teachers’ use of NGSS instructional practices, and in increasing student outcomes related to the content taught. Following data analysis from the first year of data collection, students of teachers in both randomly assigned face-to-face versus online PD groups made statistically significant gains in their content knowledge following instruction. When comparing groups (face-to-face vs online) on post measures, there were no statistically significant differences in student outcomes, thus confirming that online PD is as effective as traditional face-to-face. For rural schools, this indicates that developing high-quality online PD is a cost-effective solution for providing PD. 


STEM Strong logoInvestigating How Combining Intensive Professional Development and Modest Support Affects Rural, Elementary Teachers’ Science and Engineering Practice

PI: Ryan Summers
Grade Levels: 3-5
STEM Disciplines: Science and Engineering

Description of project: This is a study of factors that influence elementary teachers following professional learning (PL). Launched in August 2022, this longitudinal study will address four research objectives: (1) assessing the extent an intense five-day science and engineering PL event impacts teachers’ knowledge and self-efficacy in science; (2) observing the effectiveness of modest supports on teachers’ self-efficacy in science and engineering, on teachers’ use of inquiry-based instructional strategies, and on the sustainability of PL outcomes, including instructional time in science and engineering; (3) documenting the effectiveness of intense PL, followed by modest supports, on teachers’ capacities to deliver engineering instruction, and specifically their integration of engineering practices; and (4) capturing the outcomes of science and engineering instruction delivered by teachers after intense PL and modest supports, as shown by student outcomes. A mixed-methods research design will allow us to consider the effects of PL in science and engineering among elementary teachers over a three-year intervention of modest supports. We will examine the extent to which these modest supports individually and collectively contribute to the sustainability of PL outcomes in terms of increases in instructional time devoted to science, teacher self-efficacy in science, and teacher use of instructional strategies aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. We hope that our research will inform future initiatives, leading to efficient teacher PL programs that positively impact K-12 classrooms.

How does your approach particularly and innovatively address issues of rural STEM education: Due to geographic location and, often, smaller collegial networks of teachers who teach science, rural schools encounter acute challenges providing content-specific PL. This project will bring together 45 teachers from four states: North Dakota, California, Montana, and Wyoming. We are currently recruiting 180 elementary teachers for PL in summer 2023, and these recruitment efforts are focused on rural schools and communities. The PL portion of the project involving elementary teachers is referred to as STEM STRONG, an acronym for Supporting Teachers in Rural cOmmunities for the Next Generation.

Considering the distance between our states and teachers, we are prepared to provide intensive PL in science and engineering education online in collaboration with K-12 Alliance. Teachers will engage in rigorous PL over the span of five days with synchronous and asynchronous components. After completing the initial PL, teachers will engage in modest electronic supports, including a half-day refresher session the year after the initial PL and access to archived webinars on a range of topics related to teaching elementary school science. These teachers will also be provided with modest supports to keep them connected as an online professional learning community, including social media connections among participating teachers along with formal and informal virtual meeting opportunities. Our research will monitor teachers’ use of the various supports offered and identify critical supports for meaningful changes in instructional practices.

Prior work: Researchers have raised concerns that PL outcomes fade over time, and, consequently, changes to instructional practice may be short lived. Our work is built on a sturdy foundation of successful prior projects that found ways to help teachers maintain the positive impacts of PL. Project Co-PI Cathy Ringstaff brings expertise as a leader of two relevant projects, Persistence of Teacher Change in Rural Schools: Assessing the Short- and Long-Term Impact of Professional Development on K-2 Science Instruction (DRL-1119589; 9/15/2011–8/31/2016) and Modest Supports for Sustaining Professional Development Outcomes over the Long-Term (DRL-1620979; 9/15/2016–8/31/2020). Publications from these projects identified factors in PL and implementation support that promote, or that inhibit, long-term changes in instructional practices in elementary science instruction. Our current research will focus on examining the extent modest supports provided for science and engineering teaching in grades 3-5 sustain professional learning outcomes over time. Additionally, by further investigating science and considering engineering, we are expanding the scope of prior works and further investigating the connections between elementary teachers’ self-efficacy and changes in instructional practices and other variables, which were found to be significant previously.

Product: Project Website

PeBLES2 logoPlace-based Learning for Elementary Science at Scale (PeBLES2)

PI: Katahdin Cook Whitt
Grade Levels: 3-5
STEM Discipline: Science

Description of project: In the PeBLES2 project, we are investigating how to design instructional resources and professional learning that support elementary teachers in making adaptations to phenomena in science units. Phenomenon-driven learning happens when teachers use phenomena to motivate student learning in science. Students engage in science and engineering practices to make sense of phenomena as they figure out key science ideas. Incorporating phenomena connected to place and students’ interests and identities is one approach to making science instruction more equitable and just. By investigating meaningful phenomena, students can connect their learning to their interests, identities, and worlds beyond the classroom. Yet, designing units motivated by meaningful phenomena for broad audiences presents a challenge. What matters to students is context-dependent and unique to students and their communities. How, then, could we design, support and enact units for broad audiences in which meaningful and local phenomena motivate learning? 

Our PeBLES2 project team has been deeply engaged in investigating the design of instructional resources and professional learning to support teachers in making phenomena adaptations in science units to center students' identities and interests in addition to place. We are using a design-based research approach to (1) iteratively design, test, and revise locally adaptable instructional resources for elementary science; (2) examine how teachers adapt phenomena in their teaching; (3) examine teachers' learning trajectories in understanding the design of science units and making phenomenon adaptations; and (4) examine how phenomenon adaptation can enhance teacher agency and self-efficacy in science teaching and student perceptions of relevance and interest. 

How does your approach particularly and innovatively address issues of rural STEM education: Rural places across the country include a vast diversity of physical geographies and community characteristics. The unique nature of each community is central in the lived experiences of people in those rural communities. People living in rural communities tend to have deep connections with place, in addition to long histories and deep interconnections with others living in their community. Schools play an essential centralizing role as community hubs within these communities. In PeBLES2, we work closely with teachers in rural areas across the country to identify phenomena that are uniquely important in their place and to students in their community. By building on curriculum materials designed for adaptation and professional learning focused on place, students, and phenomena, educators in our project are working on adaptations to phenomena to make science learning more deeply connected to students’ places, interests, and identities.  

Initial findings: Most recent findings can be found on the Our Work page of our website. During our pilot, all teachers incorporated phenomena related to students and their places in different ways and for different purposes. During our enactment stage, we are continuing to explore how and to what extent teachers incorporate phenomena adaptation in their teaching.


2019 Spotlight

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 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 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.