In 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released, setting new expectations for what students should know and be able to do in science and engineering classrooms. The new standards align with the vision and goals of the Framework for K–12 Science Education, which asks students to make sense of the world around them and solve meaningful problems using science ideas and practices. Since the release of the NGSS, almost all states in the United States have adopted new academic science standards—necessitating an instructional shift in most classrooms to better adhere to the new standards.

STEM STRONG (Supporting Teachers in Rural Communities for the Next Generation) provides professional learning and additional instructional supports to teachers in the wake of new science and engineering standards. The project aims to promote science and engineering education in classrooms with students in grades 3–5 and seeks to build knowledge about the impact of professional learning and modest supports on promoting enduring instructional improvements. STEM STRONG takes a particular focus on rural classrooms and communities in an effort to bolster support for rural educators responsible for implementing the new science and engineering standards in the classroom.

The project brings together researchers and professional learning experts from the University of North Dakota, Purdue University, the University of Wyoming, and the Science and Engineering team at WestEd, along with more than 140 teachers from rural communities across California, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Dr. Ashley Iveland, a Senior Research Associate at WestEd and Co-Principal Investigator for the STEM STRONG project, and Jill Grace, Director of the K–12 Alliance at WestEd who led the design and facilitation of STEM STRONG’s summer teacher professional learning, discuss the project and its focus on supporting rural educators engaged in science and engineering education.

Tell us about STEM STRONG. Who are the teachers engaged in the project, and what kind of communities do they come from?

Iveland: Our project focuses on rural educators. Rural teachers have historically been undersupported and underresearched. They face unique and sometimes monumental challenges that other educators don’t necessarily face in suburban or urban spaces.

These teachers come from diverse areas—places like oil fields in North Dakota and the plains in Wyoming, near Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, or agricultural areas like California’s Central Valley. Some teachers are in one-room schoolhouses, where there’s no one for several hours’ drive, and others are near the outskirts of a larger suburban or urban area. There’s huge diversity, but they all consider themselves to be rural teachers. That’s the common denominator.

This project builds on prior work by Cathy Ringstaff and Judith Sandholtz, who studied rural teachers in California for well over a decade. In their work, they found that rural teachers made gains from intensive science professional learning, such as increased confidence in teaching science or spending more time teaching science in their classrooms, but that those gains diminished in as little as 1 to 2 years. Once they identified this, they implemented what they called modest supports with teachers. Cathy and Judith’s work demonstrated that these modest supports, which are cost-effective and relatively easy for rural districts to implement, worked to sustain the gains from professional learning over the long term. That’s the foundation of the model we are using in this project.

In STEM STRONG, our modest supports involve our team providing virtual professional learning communities (PLC), along with a resource library, a Google Classroom page where teachers interact and work together, a column in the monthly NGSS Now newsletter, and guidance and support in implementing NGSS-aligned lessons. There are additional opportunities to get support from our team during office hours that we hold on Zoom every week. Those modest supports are in addition to the initial 5-day summer intensive professional learning. We also encourage the teachers to meet together because a lot of rural teachers don’t have partner teachers at their site. We’ve created a little community in this project.

We work with rural educators in California, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming who work with students in grades 3 through 5, although some teachers work with students across many or all grade levels. We’re supporting them to implement science and engineering instruction aligned to the NGSS, which is also new for many of them.

What are the unique challenges that rural educators face, and what are the special assets they have that can be drawn upon?

Iveland: Some of the unique challenges that rural educators face include distance and, in some instances, isolation. I mentioned before, some of our teachers are in one-room schoolhouses, or they are literally the only teacher for K–12. Sometimes they are their own principal, and there’s no one they can really work with for many miles. The biggest challenge is getting them people they can collaborate and learn with.

Additionally, resourcing can be a challenge. For much of history, rural schools have been underresourced and underfunded. Teachers have not been able to get the supplies they need to do science experiments, for example, and they often don’t get professional learning supports because it can be costly or inconvenient for these teachers to travel to get these learning opportunities or to bring professional learning providers to these rural areas to work with just one or a handful of teachers. With the new science standards, it’s been challenging for teachers to learn how the standards have changed and how their instruction should change to meet the standards because many of them haven’t been supported in learning that.

Grace: It’s important to note, rural schools don’t draw from the same financial assets that other school systems are able to. In suburban and urban settings, financial resources are often available from real estate and other tax-based revenues and local control funding. Contrast this with the unique demographics of small rural communities where a lot of the land is not private. In vast swaths of Northern and Eastern California, for example, lands are often railroad, national forest, or other public lands, so there is little to no income supplementing what the school system gets from the state. Attempts to involve rural teachers in professional learning that requires a fee for service often hit a wall because there actually isn’t money available. Another challenge is that although public education funding initiatives are open to rural applicants, small districts rarely have the dedicated staff to write or manage such projects. Access to financial resources is limited and smaller in scale compared to other settings.

Iveland: Another challenge is that because rural schools and teachers are so geographically dispersed, researchers have not really delved into what it looks like to provide support to those teachers, which is a disservice. In urban districts, the local university can come in and try a novel approach or provide support, but rural teachers often don’t get those opportunities.

However, in this project, we have seen rural teachers that are so excited at the opportunity to engage with us and to learn. They’re leveraging their own unique and important assets—their deep connections to their community and their sense of place. They often teach and live in very tight-knit communities, and their schools are like little families. They’re very close and supportive of one another—not that this doesn’t happen in other settings—but it seems more pronounced because they’re smaller and fewer in number. They have to be very connected to parents and community organizations, and they leverage those things to create a unique sense of place in their rural context for their students.

Grace: I’ve experienced most rural teachers, perhaps because of the circumstances in which they teach, to be pedagogically flexible. This might be due to teaching multiple grades or just not having the same resources as others, and so you have to be creative with what you have. We tend to see strong instincts for a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach to instruction. Not that other teachers don’t do that, but in a rural setting, you’re often the only teacher, so you are the one to support all students.

Tell us about your experience delivering virtual professional learning to this number of teachers scattered across multiple states. Were there specific strategies that helped teachers be actively engaged during online professional learning?

Grace: One key factor is being thoughtful about the arc of the professional learning and grounding it in best practices, which is true for any project we work on. The shift to be able to provide virtual professional learning was largely due to COVID-19, as everyone had to pivot. Our involvement with national and statewide projects, such as OpenSciEd and NextGen TIME, and the California NGSS Collaborative, all required us to shift from face-to-face professional learning to virtual due to COVID-19. They were influential in helping us learn more about more effective virtual professional learning.

The unique need we had here was the large team that included our professional learning and research team. We fully scripted the professional learning and technology supports, which was crucial, especially if someone’s Wi-Fi goes out, so anyone could jump in and lead if necessary. This allowed for seamless delivery. We also had contingency plans for participants who struggle with technology or for teachers who do not have an internet connection, including budgeting for hotspots if needed. We provided multiple ways to access materials, like a landing page, links in the chat, and additional help through a “help desk” where people could text if they got stuck.

We shipped every teacher the materials they’d need for hands-on engagement during the Zoom sessions. We designed things so that common kitchen items could be used, but we also made sure everyone had a notebook and any other necessary materials. It was important to ensure they would build community with their colleagues and have a quality experience in terms of working with smaller groups, so we implemented a coding system for participants based on their preferred grade level. This required a lot of planning to cater to the individual needs of the teachers.

Iveland: The grouping based on grade levels facilitated the formation of connections between teachers in the breakout rooms. It kicked off the project with teachers feeling valued, comfortable with their colleagues and with project staff. It was a great start to the next 2 and a half years.

How did you help teachers shift their science and engineering instruction to better align with NGSS and place students at the center of figuring out phenomena and solving problems?

Grace: That is the million-dollar question, and it is a significant shift. We’re talking about a transition from students learning about science to students actively figuring out phenomena and solving problems. This changes the classroom dynamic completely. It’s often an experience that most of us have never had as learners. So, we start by leveraging teachers’ prior knowledge and giving teachers opportunities to experience this as a learner. We provide opportunities for them to unpack that experience, realize the implications, and consider how it changes the way we support students in their sense-making over time.

This puts teachers in a facilitation role, which can be an identity shift for many who were used to being the knowledge holder in the room. We help teachers understand how to engage students in science and engineering practices and use the structures provided by the NGSS.

A big takeaway of the professional learning was helping the teachers develop new understandings of what NGSS is and its shift in learning. We centered a lot on the idea that students are knowers, and students are also the doers of science in the classroom.

Iveland: The engineering piece was a very explicit and intentional focus of the project because research shows that elementary teachers often do not have much experience with engineering. We aim to support these teachers, particularly with the integration of engineering into the new science standards. Reframing engineering as something that isn’t intimidating but instead as a form of problem-solving that everyone can and should engage in helps teachers overcome their mental blocks. We’ve seen teachers’ confidence in teaching engineering grow dramatically after just 5 days of the professional learning.

Grace: It’s important to note that engineering is new to our standards and hasn’t been utilized in the same way in the past. The approach we’re taking is different, positioning students to be empowered learners and doers. This means moving away from treating engineering as a fun task on Fridays to integrating it with science learning in a way that each informs the other.

Another significant shift is ensuring that every student has access to high-quality science and engineering education. It’s an equity issue. This is a departure from the past when science experiences were reserved for a select few. Now, we’re focused on supporting teachers in a way that allows every student to access this type of education. It’s unacceptable for some kids to get access to science and engineering because they happen to be in a particular school or classroom; all students should get access to high-quality science and engineering education.

What we’re doing is demystifying science and engineering—it is still incredibly rigorous, but the rigor just looks different. All kids can reason in sophisticated ways. Instructional design really matters—it can be the thing that empowers students. Teachers have been surprised by the capacity of their students when [teachers are] patient with an instructional design that’s new to them. Kids have way more capacity than most of us give them credit for.