College of Education > News and Publications > 2016: 10-12 news > Research project brings STEM education to rural families

Research project brings STEM education to rural families

A new project out of the College of Education’s Learning, Design and Technology program will bring together area libraries, museums and STEM experts to provide hands-on, inquiry-based workshops to the Centre and Huntingdon County region.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rural families will have the opportunity to learn from local science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) experts thanks to a new partnership among Penn State and area businesses, libraries and museums.

Discovery Space
Students help dissect a pig's heart as part of a summer program offered by Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania.

Funded by a $588,890 Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, STEM Pillars is a two-year project out of the College of Education’s Learning, Design and Technology program that will bring five hands-on, inquiry-based workshops to the Centre County region for families with elementary-aged children.

 “We’ve partnered with public libraries and two museums — Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania and Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center — to develop materials and to host these workshops,” said Heather Toomey Zimmerman, associate professor of education and principal investigator (PI) for the project. “We’ll also work with scientists from different organizations and businesses around the area who will lead the family workshops and talk about the work that they do.”

The workshops will cover five different themes — engineering, water quality, meteorology, botany and astronomy — and will each be about 60-90 minutes long. Scientists from Actuated Medical Inc., Garden Genetics, Huntingdon County Conservation District, Kumjian research group, Palma research group and Perdew research group will teach the hands-on workshop and also share their personal stories about how they became interested in science and what led them to their careers.

“Part of this grant is hearing the stories of scientists and demonstrating how interests or hobbies that you have as a child could lead to a career as a scientist,” said Lucy McClain, a co-PI for the project who also is the science and education program director for Shaver’s Creek. “Instead of viewing all scientists as wearing white lab coats, kids can see science in its many different realms.”

Michele Crowl, co-PI and director of education at Discovery Space, said she routinely hears young students say that they want to be scientists when they grow up.

“But they don’t actually know what that means,” she said, adding that young children tend to generalize science based on their perceptions. “STEM Pillars is a way to show them that literally in their community, there is scientific research being done and that there are engineers who are solving problems every day in their community.”

Making science matter

Zimmerman, McClain and Crowl will design the workshops following a personally relevant learning model, an approach that focuses on topics that are important to the communities in which people live.

“The idea in science education is that there are these national standards that can help guide schools and that’s important,” Zimmerman said. “So, we wonder how can you take these national standards and make a genuine connection to people’s everyday lives? That’s what this project is trying to do — it’s trying to personalize science for families in a way that it becomes interesting to them by showing how science is important to the local community.”

“So, we wonder how can you take these national standards and make a genuine connection to people’s everyday lives? That’s what this project is trying to do — it’s trying to personalize science for families in a way that it becomes interesting to them by showing how science is important to the local community.”

— Heather Toomey Zimmerman,
associate professor of education

Helping families understand why science affects their everyday lives with regard to civic engagement is an important element of the program.

“In our area and rural Appalachia in general, we have unique environment and scientific challenges,” Zimmerman said. “People are facing questions regarding water quality and the effects of gas drilling. We have issues now with pollinators and one native bumblebee possibly becoming an endangered species. What does that mean for the farming community when the pollinators are declining?”

Because STEM Pillars is a family-focused project, it is the hope of the researchers that the workshops will not only spark children’s interests in science but also generate family conversations about science topics that are important within their own community.

“This is a family workshop,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not just a workshop for kids. While the target audience is kids ages 6 to 10, children and parents will attend the workshops together.

“We want to help both parent and child have a common experience so that they can then talk about it when they see a news article or read something on the internet,” she said.

“It’s about understanding what a scientist actually does,” Crowl added. “So if they’re watching the weather on TV, for example, they know that meteorologists are not just given a script to read. They’re actually using data to talk about the weather patterns. And I think those little things can be eye-opening for kids.”

Keeping it local

Zimmerman said she was drawn to this project because of the emphasis placed on local, rural communities. A former museum and environmental educator, she said she understands firsthand how important museums and libraries are to the learning process. Unfortunately, many rural families cannot easily take advantage of the large museums and zoos found in cities.  Instead, rural families use smaller informal learning institutions such as libraries, nature centers and community-based museums.

Shaver's Creek
Students participating in a summer program offered by Shaver's Creek study bumblebees under a microscope.

“There’s a real gap in our education literature about how rural families learn in their everyday lives,” she said, adding that the majority of museum literature studies urban families.  “Forty-two percent of the people who live in this area are rural and there’s a great need in rural Appalachia to develop materials to support learning outside the school in small, community-based organizations.”

To meet that need, the STEM Pillars research team will work with educational partners such as Schlow Library, Huntingdon County Library, and Centre County Library, as well as Shaver’s Creek and Discovery Space, and will travel to different locations throughout the Centre region.

“For many rural communities, it’s maybe not feasible for families to visit museums,” McClain said. “So one of our goals is to take the programs to these families and we’re looking at different sites within their communities so that they’re able to participate.”

“One aspect that’s really neat about this project is that the money from this grant is staying local,” Zimmerman added. “It is staying in Huntingdon and Centre counties to support people in this area with STEM programming.”

The research team, which also includes Penn State Associate Professor of Education Susan Land and graduate student Soo Hyeon Kim, plans to implement the first set of workshops in the spring of 2017 and then evaluate the programs by collecting data from participants in the form of surveys, interviews and videos.

“Once we study the workshops, we’ll go back and rework them and implement them again in the late fall or early winter,” Zimmerman said, explaining that the workshops will be offered four times throughout the two-year period and will be evaluated and reworked continually. “By the fourth time, we’ll have a really good set of workshops that have the research behind them that says what works, how they work and why they work. We can then share and disseminate that information to other libraries and museums in rural areas.”

“Our libraries and museums have great tools,” she said. “But we need to make sure they also have research-based resources that they can use to strengthen what they already do.”

By Jessica Buterbaugh (October 2016)