NSF ATE Project Set to Bolster STEM Education & PBL in Rural Communities

As the focus on next generation jobs becomes rooted in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) one question remains: are all students on the same page in terms of STEM proficiency? Do minorities, economically disadvantaged, or students from rural communities have access to same resources as their peers who hail from communities with better graded schools? To level the playing field, the Technological Education for the Rural Community (TERC) project is addressing the need to improve STEM education in rural communities.

Similar to FLATE, TERC is a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Advanced Technological
Education (ATE) project that advances innovative pathways for technical education at the community college level. Its emphasis, however, lies in serving rural communities. Working with Hopkinsville Community College (HCC), which is part of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, TERC currently serves Christian, Todd, Trigg, and Caldwell counties in southern Kentucky including Ft. Campbell and Montgomery counties in Tennessee. The region is home to over 70 manufacturing entities that consistently face difficulty hiring qualified employees to fill technical positions.

Contingent on securing funding from NSF, TERC is set to begin working on targeted objectives by summer
2014. Access to school for the rural students, poor academic preparation primarily in mathematics, and awareness of STEM fields open to minorities and women are three identified hindrances to higher education. Of the three, access and low mathematics comprehension are two educational barriers that will primarily be addressed by TERC.

Sherry McCormack, assistant professor at HCC says the TERC will develop and implement conduits for rural students and traditionally 
underrepresented groups to enter technical fields. This will be accomplished by utilizing portable, personalized instructional methods to facilitate remedial coursework success with contextualization of materials. Hybridization will incorporate problem based learning scenarios based on industry-centric curriculum relevant to highly technical workplaces. Didactic content will be delivered via the Internet and preloaded on portable media, while lab work will be facilitated through one-on-one instruction in an open lab environment.

To incorporate real-world applications and minimize rote learning, the project is contextualizing mathematics
content with application-related content of technology courses. “We plan to include ‘messy problems’ that assist students to think critically through mathematical problems that do not have one clear method for solving when multiple variables are present” said McCormick. Using this method, students can recognize real-world difficulties that are not easily solved, but can be addressed through ingenuity and creativity.

If funding is secured, TERC will be writing and programming specific problems into an online course shell to assist students with actual math based concepts they see in the workplace. “The fusion of math content contextualized for the specific program will make a smoother transition for students to go from low level developmental math through more advanced math and trigonometry concepts that will be required in the workplace” McCormick said. TERC’s findings and research will not only help define its targeted goals, but can assist FLATE kick start similar effort to introduce high-tech manufacturing to rural counties in Florida.

For more information on TERC contact Sherry McCormack at smccormack0001@kctcs.edu and 270.701.3930. To learn about NSF ATE projects contact Dr. Marilyn Barger, executive director of FLATE at 813.259.6578 and barger@fl-ate.org, or visit www.fl-ate.org and www.madeinflorida.org.