Kudzu Bricks, Tiny Homes, and Glow-in-the-Dark Horseshoes: Innovation in Rural Kentucky Schools
What can be done with the invasive plant species kudzu? How can we build more tiny houses for people in the community? How can people who ride horses at night be safer?
These are all real challenges that students in rural Kentucky are tackling through grants that encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, which consists of 22 small school districts in the eastern region of the state, administers several grant competitions that give money to students and teachers for project-based learning.
For instance, teachers of all grade levels can apply for a $1,000 innovation grant. Educators identify a problem of practice in their classrooms, which they can then research and develop a plan of action with their students. In the spring, the teachers and students present their work to others in the cooperative at an annual summit, called Forging Innovation in Rural Education.
From 2014 to 2019, about 570 grants have been awarded, and an additional 150 grants are expected to be issued in the current school year. Educators say the grants double as hands-on learning for students and real-time professional development for teachers—something that can be hard to come by in a rural, remote district.
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"It's a lot of learning opportunities for students, and we've been able to personalize the professional learning in our district," said Dessie Bowling, an associate director at KVEC.
"What we've found is professional development has always been one-size-fits all. ... Through these innovation grants, we've been able to help [teachers] really become better professionals in the particular content they're teaching."
Part of the professional learning component is learning how to apply for grants and getting the chance to collaborate with educators across the region, she said.
"It's professional learning that they're completing themselves and not realizing it sometimes," said Bernadette Carpenter, an instructional lead at KVEC who adminsters the innovation grants program. "They step outside their box and try something new."
The grant-funded projects are expected to demonstrate a tangible improvement in teaching and learning.
"We may have teachers who want iPads for the classroom, but it's not about just getting the iPads," Bowling said. "It's what are you going to do to improve teaching and learning with those iPads, and how are the students going to be affected?"
Instead, the grants allow teachers to implement project-based learning into their classroom. For example, kudzu is an invasive vine, common across the Southeast, that kills or damages other plants. Students at Belfry High School received a grant to study the species and learn how to use it to produce cheap bricks that could be used as renewable building materials.
And in this area of Kentucky, many people go horseback riding at night—a safety concern, since there have been reports of horses getting hit by cars when it's dark out. Two Johnson County High School students received financial support through KVEC's entrepreneurial competition to create an innovative solution: glow-in-the-dark horseshoes. The students created the horseshoes and put together a business plan to market their product. The retail chain Tractor Supply Co. gave the students shelf space and is helping the students advertise the horseshoes.
KVEC also has a subset of grants dedicated to designing and building tiny houses. In the past three years, students have designed and built 18 tiny homes, and six additional ones are expected to be completed this school year. The proceeds from the sale of the houses are given back to the schools to continue the work the next year.
"The self-efficacy of these teachers has improved—not just with the teachers, but with the students as well," Bowling said. "They believe they can do these things."
At Jackson City School, a preK-12 school in Jackson, Ky., 15 teachers are receiving innovation grants this year to the tune of $15,000 in total, said Jeff Coots, a high school math teacher, the chief information officer, and the innovation coordinator at the school.
"We don't get a lot of funds from our state," he said. "We make use of every dollar we get. ... [Without these grants], we never would have had the opportunity to give our students the additional funding [for these projects] that challenge our teachers and makes them leaders in our district."
After all, Carpenter said, once teachers learn how to apply for a grant and lead a student-driven project of this nature, they are more likely to do it again in the future.
"Teachers have become more comfortable with themselves, and they have confidence in themselves," she said. "They're more willing to step out and try new things."
Top image: Belfry High School student JT Mills holds a kudzu brick that he and his classmates made as part of an innovation-grant project. Bottom image: A student works on making a kudzu brick. Images courtesy of Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative.