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Rural STEM Initiative Sees Good Results in Pilot Year

A group of rural East Tennessee school districts are working together to improve students' skills in science, technology, engineering and math, and their pilot effort to do so appears to have been effective in boosting students' interest in those subjects.

The Rural Communities STEM Initiative is an Oak Ridge, Tenn.,-based partnership of nine rural school districts. It was co-founded by Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tenn., and Oak Ridge, Tenn.,-based Materials and Chemistry Laboratory, Inc.

The partnership is supported by nearby education institutions as well as businesses that depend on a STEM-related workforce from rural counties. Other supportive businesses want to see higher student achievement in STEM-related subjects.

The partnership's long-term goal is to affect K-12 students, but this relatively new group started this past school year by pilot testing a program with middle school students. Oak Ridge Associated Universities and Roane State Community College created "Lab-in-a-Box" kits that contained resources and lesson plans aligned with the new statewide math and science curriculum for the middle school grades.

The boxes cost about $7,500 each and last about one academic year for up to 80 students at each school. The Rural Communities STEM Initiative pays for teachers to be trained on how to use them, and the Roane State Foundation paid the total $65,000 cost this past year. The initiative is looking for additional funding.

Organizers say this is important for rural schools because teachers often don't have enough lab materials for students; the kits have enough samples for everyone.

An evaluation on the kits by Roane State Community College found that:
• 70.9 percent of students said the labs increased their interest in science or math;
• 91.5 percent of students reported that they liked doing the labs;
• 85 percent of students achieved a high level of competence in the state
standards addressed with each kit; and
• the average teacher rating for students' interest in the labs was 4.2 on a 5-point scale.

The evaluation didn't appear to address whether students' achievement actually increased, and that would be interesting to know.

Still, officials said they were encouraged by the results. The nine participating school districts included: Anderson, Campbell, Loudon, Morgan, Roane and Scott County school systems and Lenoir City, Oneida and Clinton.

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