Professor to use grant to study rural science education
Published: Friday, October 5, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
UNH’s Department of Education has been granted $1.2 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct a study on rural and indigenous communities in northern New England. The study will focus on understanding why, statistically, rural kids don’t do as well with science as urban and suburban students do and will look into how to fix this problem.
According to the research team, youths from these rural communities are statistically less likely to go on to work in the science field. By going through with this three-year study, they will implement an after-school program that will encourage approximately 2,000 middle school students to complete projects and studies on different forms of sustainability practiced in rural and indigenous communities. In the first year, the study will take place in northern New Hampshire.
While many kids in rural areas struggle with science in school, Eleanor Abrams, professor in the department of education, said they are growing up in places where communities have some of the healthiest sustainability practices in the country. Suburban kids, surrounded by shopping malls and compact neighborhoods, don’t get nearly the same natural understanding of scientific sustainability as those living in places like northern New Hampshire.
Abrams and her colleagues hope to find a way to create more interest in science, particularly sustainable sciences, within these communities.
“What happens up there in these counties is very unique,” Abrams said. “Cultural sustainability practices that haven’t been current sustainable practices, and most of the time, these rural people say, ‘Oh we’re just saving a buck. We’re making a buck.’”
Selling eggs to local farmers markets and collecting maple syrup sound like simple ways to “make a buck” to some people in rural areas, but they are in fact practices that have kept these communities running since their beginnings years ago. Urban America is only recently beginning to appreciate things like local egg farming, but these things have never left the rural communities. This is all they know.
This, Abrams said, seems to be one of the problems with rural kids and their struggles with science in school. Kids are growing up surrounded by some of the best examples of healthy sustainability and they don’t even realize it.
“When you grow up in something, sometimes you never explore or investigate the value of your own community,” Abrams said. “Even though they know a lot about the ecology and the environment, it’s not translating well into school thought.”
The curriculums in the rural schools, too, have been a problem. Most of the books the kids read in science class, where they learn about sustainability, focus on methods that don’t relate to them. In places like Exeter, everyone knows to put their recyclables out in the street in a blue bin. In the northern, woodsier parts of New Hampshire and Maine, this often doesn’t happen. Many times, people need to take their recyclables to their city center on their own. This is just one of the ways Abrams said the curriculums don’t translate to the rural students. Kids are learning how to practice sustainability in the suburbs, but while living in rural communities where these practices don’t apply.
“The schooling is often not relevant to either rural or indigenous learners,” Abrams said.
The goal then is to make sure that these young learners don’t miss out on understanding something that might end up being what they have a passion for.
“This is the age (middle school/high school) where their identities are being formed, and we’re hoping that these experiences can help strengthen their identities as science learners and identities as rural residents,” Abrams said.
“So many of them are already saying, ‘I’m good at science, or I’m good at math...’” Abrams said.
“We’re hoping that some of them are saying at the end of this, ‘Oh yeah, I am good at science.’”
Kids involved will be encouraged to post their research projects on an online database so that other rural communities in the United States can see what kind of growth is happening in New England. Hopefully, indigenous areas across the nation would be able to connect and relate to each other.
“Oftentimes these projects happen, and then the results are stored in a closet after a presentation some place,” Abrams said. “This, we’re hoping that somebody in Minnesota can look and say, ‘Wow, we do local egg production,’ or ‘We do maple sugaring as part of our local community practices, and they do it in New Hampshire (as well).’”
Abrams, who grew up near rural Waterville, Maine, has a certain passion for bringing better opportunities to kids in rural and indigenous communities. She is very excited to see how far she can take this project, hopefully introducing many young kids to a world of scholastic success in science that they might have otherwise failed to grasp.
“To get something this big and be able to look at how effective is sustainability science in sustaining students’ attitudes and motivations and knowledge is huge,” Abrams said. “It’s so exciting. We should be able to get some really interesting research results out of them.”