Closing STEM Education Opportunity Gaps for Rural Students

Pam BuffingtonPam Buffington provides technical support in evidence-based policy development and decision-making to state and local education agencies. An expert in rural education, STEM education, and technology integration, she leads the design and management of professional learning programs that build educator capacity to improve students’ learning outcomes. She is a co-PI of the National Science Foundation-funded Research and Practice Collaboratory and Visual Access to Mathematics study. Recently, she served as the Northeast Rural Districts Research Alliance Facilitator for REL Northeast & Islands. In this post, Pam reflects on EDC’s work to close STEM education opportunity gaps for students in rural areas to ensure they are ready to succeed in a job market that demands a solid foundation of STEM knowledge and skills.

As a resident of a rural region, I see the profound strengths and challenges of rural communities each day. In many towns near where I live, the trees outnumber the people. Yet the people are committed to supporting each other in thriving, whether that means plowing a neighbor out in a blizzard or rebuilding a barn when it burns down. This spirit is key to surviving the rigors of rural life—the many trade displaced workers, poverty, and few resources and services.

In my work at EDC, I see equally great strengths and challenges in rural schools. One of the major strengths is the many dedicated teachers and leaders in remote regions who work hard, often with scant resources, to give PreK–12 students world-class educations. Despite their efforts, however, there are opportunity gaps for students in rural communities that have gone overlooked for decades and have negative impacts on students and teachers. Recently, the gaps have begun to gain national attention (see Harvard Political Review, The Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report, Brown Center Chalkboard, EdSurge). The following infographic by EDC’s Jennifer Mihok captures and conveys the landscape and some of the key issues:





My work has a special focus on supporting educators in rural districts in improving students’ access to challenging STEM experiences that boost their learning outcomes. This matters a lot to rural students’ college and career success. Today’s job market demands workers to have a strong grounding in STEM. Technological literacy is key to workforce success, as are the kinds of critical thinking and problem-solving skills that students master as they engage in challenging mathematics learning, inquiry-based science explorations, and hands-on tinkering with engineering. In and beyond rural communities, a rapidly growing number of traditionally “non-STEM” jobs—in health, manufacturing, agriculture, design, entrepreneurial opportunities, and a host of others—require significant STEM skills and knowledge.

In a researcher-practitioner partnership, I’ve been leading an EDC team in collaborating with teachers in Auburn, Maine to enhance student learning of mathematics in the early grades through the integration of interactive mobile technologies. Auburn has a very high percentage of students living in poverty. In two of the elementary schools we are working with, the free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rates are 80% and 60%. We are seeing some great benefits to both students and teachers from this work, which I’ve led as co-PI of the NSF-funded R+P Collaboratory, as well as advancing the field’s knowledge of effective strategies to bridge STEM education research and practice and close opportunity gaps. Watch this video for an inspiring look at the STEM strides that Auburn teachers and students are making:


Recently, EDC received a Math-Science Partnership grant from the Maine Department of Education to expand this successful approach to 22 more schools in Maine, most of which are in rural communities. This project will extend our K–2 R+P Collaboratory professional development support to Grade 3 teachers and emphasize building teacher leadership to sustain the work beyond the end of the project. This kind of system change approach is key to improving STEM learning outcomes for rural students.

In rural areas, it is equally important for students to be able to access rich STEM learning experiences after school. While many rural students do not have the same informal STEM learning resources their urban peers have—close proximity to museums, Maker Clubs, and science centers—there are many place-based STEM learning opportunities and natural resources close by that can be tapped into. These can include high-tech companies, shipyards, farms, 4-H clubs, aquaculture and forestry businesses, and libraries w/STEM camps.

The challenge? To connect students with these opportunities. Right now, EDC is evaluating a program in Maine that is tackling this challenge. The Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance is working to increase access to out-of-school-time STEM learning opportunities for rural youth by providing enthusiastic and knowledgeable STEM Guides who help connect youth, ages 10-18, with fun anWork with Gulf of Maine Instituted interesting STEM resources. As part of this work, they have set up an online “Resource Bank” to connect youth with STEM opportunities.

A few other examples of EDC’s current work related to improving STEM opportunity and achievement for rural students follow:

  • Through the Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia, EDC is collaborating with SRI to provide targeted research on strategies to improve students’ math learning and achievement, as well as providing general analytic support to advance the use of research to improve education in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
  • In a rural coastal county in Maine, EDC is working with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to bring teachers and community leaders involved in STEM together to identify and address the most critical problems of practice and promising opportunities to increase local students’ STEM skills—with a special focus on data literacy, marine science, and technology.
  • EDC just wrapped up a two-year evaluation of the CyberCorps Virtual Cyber Security Collaborative, an innovative effort that allows groups of physically remote Maine undergraduate and graduate students to gain practical collaborative experience in preventing and mitigating cyberattacks in real time. This program is designed to foster the knowledge and skills needed to prepare for careers preventing and responding to security breaches.

My colleagues bring real passion, as well as deep expertise in educational research and systems change, to these and other efforts focused on rural education. For me, my focus on this work feels a bit like the commitment to supporting each other in thriving that is integral to the rural Maine community in which I live. I want to see all of the students and young adults in all rural communities nationwide have the tools, skills, and knowledge they need to succeed.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017 - 9:15am