Back to the Future: STEM Innovation in small, rural American schools

The growth of STEM education in Ohio, and the nation at large, has been slow to follow the demands of the industry. In addition, school-community partnerships have been far too slow to respond to the changes in the national economy. For too many years, government and industry leaders have cried for more workers with problem solving abilities, an engineering spirit, and social skills to work with teams as our economy shifts. Where the government cut funding for vocational education programming and pathway development in the ’80s, now they seek to reverse the narrative and once again promote career development at the secondary level.

Begin Career Pathways Early

This is a stark reversal of fortunes for those educators interested in going “back to the future” to promote career pathways and place-based work experiences such as internships, and industry-based lab settings. To the founder of 4H, A.B. Graham, the experience provided the best learning labs at the turn of the last century. Dewey himself was a chief proponent of pathways in the early 20th century. In the 1950s the post-war boom saw a dramatic expansion of career pathways and STEM education tied to our economic development and infrastructure work in America. Great ideas and improvement processes with technology adaptation and scientific innovation can be learned over and over in classrooms, and by successive generations. Sometimes we need reminders that this is nothing new. However, the tools are always changing.

Value Place-Based Experiences

Experiential learning is all the rage once again. Certifications and credentials, along with the badging collected in students’ “virtual backpacks” have become common language among secondary schools seeking to reform, all in an attempt to catch up to what we have known all along: place-based learning experiences are the best way to foster career pathways in schools.

The next idea is crucial: combine STEM learning with career path exploration to mesh the system for a K-12 holistic approach to developing future-ready learners. Infusing problem-based learning and STEM environments into classrooms, with grade-level activities, and through whole school events can change the culture through true innovation, and fast. Pipe cleaners and Legos can change a child’s view of career pathways in 1st grade. Software tools like Learning Blade are all the rage in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ohio middle schools. Ted Talks are performance-based assessment gold for young adults. Lean Six sigma certificates are proof of problem-solving abilities for industry, so why not high school students?

Mesh STEM and Pathways

What many schools have missed is the opportunity to mesh STEM education and computer science education with pathway development prior to high school. This is the niche environment where America’s small and rural schools can excel! The size, staffing, and nimble nature of small schools lend itself to adaptive environments. Many have faced budgeting issues, staffing crunches, and a lack of pathways for years. They are already adept at modifying the learning activities to meet needs based on these constraints. Coding challenges during “genius hour” and adaptive math software are the new tools easily embedded in small school classrooms. The consumerism of education today requires us to move faster to remain relevant to a community full of choices. Smalls can be quick to compete.


Smalls can do BIG things

Where small schools differ from large is in the implementation pace, rate of change, and the flexible partnerships that can have an immediate impact on a small scale. Grants, pilot programs, and donors for small schools lead to a faster rate of change. Less money upfront, less staff to train, and less overall students to serve can all actually be positive factors that benefit students and staff when partnering with a small school district. Where the early frontier teacher may have been on an island, now we have PLNs and social media platforms for professional support and sharing to strengthen delivery at an accelerated pace.

Indeed, when one thinks back to the schoolhouses of the past, it was the small rural schoolhouse that differentiated best, moving students through accelerated curriculums with blended age groups. What changed over time was not the skills of the teachers, but the focus away from experiential groups, lab settings for blended activities, and outdoor experiences to prepare students for chosen careers. Many schools actually flipped content for days prior to lessons being taught, mimicking the blended styles used again today with computer integration and internet access across the country.


“Back to the Future” Steps:

1. Begin pathways early

Graham teachers use classroom time called “genius hour” to introduce Coding, gaming, and STEM design challenges; clubs like FIRST Lego League are also great after school activities. Model Board policies for service hours and job shadowing require students at all three levels of the district to experience learning in a variety of settings.

2. Value place-based learning

Graham students are required and encouraged to explore careers through field trips, job shadowing experiences, service projects, and internships. Weekly “brown bag luncheons” with industry partners and class guests promotes STEM learning and career in our lower grades, while internships and student-led events certification activities such as Lean Six Sigma promote interaction with partners. Falcon Farms, Greenhouse work, beehives, and trails are valued in outdoor education venues.

3. Mesh STEM with all curriculum

Graham has pursued green energy projects to promote environmental STEM education at the middle school level. A Girls only energy team works on solar array projects with industry partner Energy Optimizers. Falcon Farms students learn to run a sustainable agribusiness on the property over time, with planned activities for several grade levels, and collaboration between high school and middle level learners.

4. Free teachers to experiment

Experimentation is the key. When implementing changes that require the use of technology, STEM work, and blended groupings, small schools must be willing to support risk takers, lead teachers, and ultimately, sustain a vision of personal pathway exploration for each child. Promote early adopters and provide them support. Ask them to model for others. Encourage teacher teams to create courses an activities together. Recognize their efforts publicly to reinforce the culture you wish to create.

Policies and rules can always be modified. Create a model for change and promote it. This is easier said than done. Maybe by going back to the future, we can learn a thing or two about the journey ahead.


About the author

Kirk Koennecke is the current Superintendent of the Graham Local Schools in Saint Paris, Ohio. He also serves as the Executive Director of the Ohio Small & Rural Collaborative. Mr. Koennecke has been actively involved in education for 24 years. Kirk earned his B.S. in Secondary Education from The Ohio State University. He holds a M.S. in Sport Administration from Miami University of Ohio, and an M.A. in Education Administration from John Carroll University. Mr. Koennecke completed his Education Specialist M.S. at Wright State University. Kirk has served in several leadership roles over the years, in quality districts both large and small, urban and rural. In 2007, he was awarded the Close-Caputo Educator of Humanity Award for his leadership in urban education. Kirk has presented at the local, state, and national levels, and has been published in several educational journals and books. Kirk makes his home in Saint Paris, Ohio with his wife Susie. They have five children.


If you also are a superintendent and want to write an article for our STEM Blog, just contact us. The doors are always open! May the code be with you!