Taking a Strengths-Based Approach to Teaching STEM in Rural Schools


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Overview and Purpose

With the current and future job market constantly increasing its demand for qualified and passionate individuals to uphold careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-fields (STEM), it falls in the hands of educators and schools in society to prepare students for the STEM jobs that await them after graduation. More specifically, it is up to educators to ensure that all students in any demographic feel worthy and capable of entering jobs within STEM fields.

Students need to both feel that they belong in a field by being given opportunities to picture themselves within the field, and they also need to have experiences which enhance their interest within that field. In rural schools particularly, students consistently show lower test scores and achievement in STEM fields and interest in STEM than in urban and suburban students (Harris and Hodges, 2018). This is due to a variety of factors and barriers to rural students' STEM education.

Teachers, however, can combat these barriers by utilizing a strengths-based approach to teaching STEM subjects, thus giving their students more experiences which expose them to the possible careers that await them after school. Taking a strengths-based approach to teaching STEM in rural schools is a recent phenomenon that has been studied by researchers primarily in Australia (Murphy, 2020). The findings, however, yield great implications for helping rural teachers take advantage of the unique opportunities they are given to create meaningful lessons for their STEM students.

Thus, this mini-course will provide rural STEM teachers with ways to take a strengths-based approach to teaching in small rural schools. Particularly, this course is designed to assist STEM teachers in actualizing their potential to use resources, community connections, and innovative creativity in order to create unique and meaningful learning experiences for their students.

Throughout this course, the questions that will be addressed are:

  • What is the difference between a deficit versus strengths-based approach to teaching?
  • Why is it necessary that rural STEM teachers alter their teaching to strengths-based instruction?
  • How can rural STEM teachers take advantage of their unique circumstances in order to create hands-on, inquiry-based, innovative lessons?
  • How will students benefit from these experiences, both short-term and long-term?

Needs Assessment


The Nature of What is to be Learned: Educators taking this mini-course will learn how to overcome barriers associated with rural public schools in order to provide students with a comprehensive, unique, and meaningful STEM education. Through taking a strengths-based approach to teaching, participants will learn how to create hands-on and inquiry based lessons for their students that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.

About the Learners: The learners (educators) are any teachers of STEM subjects in rural-school districts. Whether they are new teachers or well into their career, the learners may be seeking new creative ways to give their students access to STEM skills and unique lessons. Due to the high turnover rate of teachers in rural school districts (Harris and Hodges, 2018), learners may use this information to view teaching in a rural school in a new light.

Existing Efforts to Address this Gap: Little research has been done about how to help close the gap between rural students' achievement in STEM subjects, and even less has been done about how teachers can alter their pedagogical mindsets and strategies to help this issue. Rural schools are often given grants to aid with their resource acquisition, but this mini course focuses on resources which teachers most likely already have at their disposition.

Intent Statement: This mini course will help teachers provide their rural students with unique, one-of-a-kind, hands-on lessons in STEM areas. Doing so will increase the likelihood of students retaining information and becoming more successful in STEM subjects and developing interest in those fields.

Performance Objectives

By the end of this course learners will be able to:

  • Clearly and articulately state the differences between strengths-based and deficit-based approaches to teaching in a rural school
  • Apply their understandings of a strengths-based approach to teaching to their own pedological practices
  • Identify ways they can utilize resources in their rural community and school in order to create meaningful and unique STEM lessons for their students
  • Design hands-on inquiry-based lessons as to engage students in the construction of knowledge and application of STEM topics

Course Units

This mini-course includes the following units. Click the title of a unit to go to its page.

Unit 1: Introduction to Teaching STEM in Rural Public Schools

After this unit the participants will be able to:

  • Identify common barriers to STEM education in rural schools
  • Explain why teaching STEM in rural schools is often discussed in a negative way

Participants will take a self-assessment quiz based on their perceptions of teaching STEM in a rural public school.

Unit 2: Deficit versus Strengths-Based Approaches to Teaching

After this unit the participants will be able to:

  • Compare and contrast characteristics of deficit vs. strengths-based approaches to teaching
  • Evaluate their own current instructional practices with regard to deficit vs. strengths-based teaching
  • Describe the importance of using a strengths-based approach to teaching STEM in rural public schools

Participants will use a journal prompt to elaborate on their own current instructional practices and identify if they believe they use more of a deficit vs. strengths-based approach to teaching.

Unit 3: Implementing Strengths-Based Teaching

After this unit the participants will be able to:

  • List unique resources common to most rural public schools
  • Identify ways in which rural STEM teachers can utilize these resources to create hands-on inquiry-based lessons

Participants will select one instructional strategy that stands out to them and annotate why they like this teaching strategy for STEM students in rural schools.

Participants will share ideas in a Google Doc of their favorite resources or provide feedback about ways to incorporate these strategies in other subject areas or in urban/suburban schools.

Unit 4: Moving Forward: The Application of this Work

After this unit the participants will be able to:

  • Design their own strengths-based plan for teaching STEM in rural schools
  • Apply components from each unit to synthesize an understanding of the content

Participants will design an informal lesson related to a topic of their choosing which incorporates a strengths-based instructional strategy from the mini-course.

Extended Resources

Adedokun, O.A., Goodpaster, K.P.S., & Weaver, G.C. (2012). Teachers’ perceptions of rural STEM teaching: Implications for rural teacher retention. The Rural Educator, 33(3). https://doi.org/10.35608/ruraled.v33i3.408

Avery, L.M. (2013). Rural science education: Valuing local knowledge. Theory Into Practice, 52(1), 28-35. DOI: 10.1080/07351690.2013.743769

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

Constitutional Rights Foundation. (2021). BRIA 7 4 c education and the 14th amendment. Constitutional Rights Foundation.

Hamilton, J. (2019, April 19). Making STEM classes accessible to students in rural America. TechTalks. https://bdtechtalks.com/2019/04/19/stem-education-rural-america/

Harris, R. S., & Hodges, C.B. (2018). STEM education in rural schools: Implications of untapped potential. National Youth-At-Risk Journal, 3(1), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.20429/nyarj.2018.030102

Hinchey, P. H. (1998). Finding freedom in the classroom: A practical introduction to critical theory (pp. 17-32). New York: P. Lang.

Murphy, S. (2020). Achieving STEM education success against the odds. Curriculum Perspectives, 40, 241-246. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41297-020-00110-8

The Climate Reality Project. (2021). The climate crisis in 2021: 5 key facts to know. The Climate Reality Project. https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/climate-crisis-2021-5-key-facts-know

Saint Louis University. (2023). Strengths-based education. Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning.

Schroeder, B. (2021). The data analytics profession and employment is exploding- hree trends that matter. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernhardschroeder/2021/06/11/the-data-analytics-professio n-and-employment-is-exploding-three-trends-that-matter/?sh=27a3163d3f8

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Employment in STEM occupations. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/stem-employment.htm

VICE News. (2019, April 14). Rural America is running out of teachers [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcI2qyP_uj4&t=1s