Keeping weather instruments free of ice at the Mount Washington Observatory (MWO). As part of the WeatherX project, rural students look into decades of weather data from MWO and NOAA to investigate how extreme the weather can get in such a location. (Photo courtesy of the Mount Washington Observatory).

Much has been said nationally of the need to develop STEM aptitude – that ubiquitous acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. But developing these skills in our students is not just about preparing them for the 21st century workforce. It is more critical than that. 

Fostering a STEM culture is about ensuring young people gain the skills to understand the world around them and are prepared to address the challenges they will inevitably face. Challenges that in some ways will disproportionately impact rural communities, such as globalization, effects of extreme weather, and inequality.

Pam Buffington (Photo submitted)

Our rural communities have always valued STEM skills, but few of our schools have adequate resources to ensure our students acquire those skills. Now, in the wake of a year like no other, we have a once-in-a-generation chance to strengthen our rural communities by improving STEM education for our students.

The American Rescue Plan includes billions of dollars that are right now being distributed across states and directed to education agencies. These funds offer an opportunity for rural schools and communities to enhance STEM education by improving access to technology, business partnerships, and the resources to recruit and retain highly qualified STEM teachers.   

To best take advantage of these funds, here are three priority strategies for rural community leaders to consider. 

Connect to the Natural World

First, STEM programs must embrace and build upon the strong connections rural educators and community members have to the natural world. These connections have always been a defining quality of rural life. We value the mountains, oceans, fields, and forests where we live, and know their relationships to our cultural histories. We know their science, too, as well as the feats of engineering that it takes to live in a rural community. 

This uniquely rural experience can be the foundation for STEM education programs that prepare rural students for careers that solve local problems, and rebuild rural economies. This uniquely rural experience can be the foundation for STEM education programs that prepare rural students for careers that solve local problems and rebuild rural economies. In fact, it’s already happening. In the shadow of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern United States, I’ve been working with partners at the Mount Washington Observatory (MWO) and a group of rural students and teachers as part of the WeatherX project. Through that project, we are digging into decades of temperature, wind speed, and other data from MWO and NOAA to investigate how extreme the weather can get at a place that has been called the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.”

This work isn’t just about numbers. Students also collect stories about past local extreme weather events from family and community members to gain historical context and a grounding from lived experience. They engage with interactive data tools, deepening their understanding of particular data, like temperature and wind speed, through videos and other online media. They connect virtually with scientists to help understand the stories and data more fully. Through this combination of data sources, students are building a deeper understanding of their rural environment, while gaining STEM skills along the way.  

Link Rural Educators

American Rescue Plan funds can help launch STEM learning networks that connect educators. While the experiences of rural educators vary by the locales in which they teach and the students they serve, their schools share many of the same assets and challenges. In my work with rural teachers, I’ve observed how important and empowering it is to connect “rural role-alikes” across great divides. For example, connecting an elementary math and science teacher in North Dakota with one in the remote reaches of Maine addressed the isolation both face and helped them share successes and problem-solve. Linking teachers also allows them to engage their students in collaborating on projects with a broader range of peers. 

Empower Students

Finally, these federal funds can help create STEM programs that empower students to act on issues related to their environment. This is critical at a time when the rate of extreme weather events is accelerating, and when rural communities bear a disproportionate share of the burden.  

Again, existing partnerships between STEM educators and rural schools can show us what is possible. In Real World, Real Science, a collaborative project between the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Education Development Center, students in Maine are immersed in explorations of marine, forest, and freshwater ecosystems to understand how changes in weather and climate affect their natural surroundings. Using data from NASA, students measure the timing of ice-out in local lakes and rivers, examine how the prevalence of deer ticks connect to cases of Lyme disease in their communities, and study trends in ocean temperature to predict lobster and black sea bass populations along Maine’s coast. 

In May, Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas, helped pass a bipartisan Rural STEM Education Research Act by the House of Representatives. “Rural areas represent one of the greatest, yet most underutilized, opportunities for talented students to enhance the United States’ future STEM workforce,” he recently said

With the American Rescue Plan rollout underway, now is the moment to direct those funds to rebuild and reinvigorate our rural STEM education programs. We can’t let our students, or our communities, down. 

Pam Buffington is the Director of Rural Initiatives in the US Division of Education Development Center. She is a lifelong rural resident and currently lives in Bowdoinham, Maine. ​​In addition to the research, development, and policy work of recent years, Buffington has nearly two decades of experience as a mathematics, physics, and computer science teacher.