Skip to Content

Institute for Rural Education and Development

Core 3: Middle School and High School

To improve entry into the STEM workforce, students should be provided with both STEM content and related career development activities. Immersive virtual reality (VR) experiences have shown great promise in increasing STEM learning and motivation.

STEM Career Development for Rural Students

This core research area involves rural science teachers and school counselors working collaboratively with our team. Together, we are developing health science content and career development immersive virtual reality (VR) activities. This program is known as AWAKE-HSVR (Advancement of the Workforce and Knowledge Economy Health Sciences Virtual Reality.)

The research will focus on using project-based learning units that incorporate VR science labs and health science career exploration for rural students in late childhood and early adolescence.

Project Significance

  • Immersive VR experiences have shown great promise in increasing STEM learning and motivation, especially when content is grounded in real opportunities available within students' local communities.

  • This STEM career development is focused on encouraging students to get interested in health science to aid in the current shortages of health care providers, which is most profound in the rural areas in which they live.

Research Innovation 

Collaboration between rural teachers and school counselors is rare, partly because teachers are unaware of school counselors career development expertise. Our research collaborates with both teachers and school counselors to develop health science content and VR activities.

Little research has focused on STEM career exploration for early adolescents in rural areas. This research will provide insight into rural students' reaction to STEM career introductions in the crucial early adolescent years, which is when they begin to understand their own interests, character traits and how they connect with careers. 

Career exposure opportunities can be challenging for rural school districts that are situated far from urban areas and may not have STEM industry locations nearby. VR simulations bring the workplace to students right in their rural classrooms.

Research Aims

  1. Identify local health-related issues for each rural community for the development of AWAKE-HSVR PBL units for 5th-7th grade

  2. Develop AWAKE-HSVR PBL units for 5th-7th grade science classes that are developmentally appropriate and include training material for implementation

  3. Obtain initial evidence of the AWAKE-HSVR PBL units and training material for classroom practice for rural 5th-7th grade teachers

  4. Obtain initial evidence of the outcomes of the AWAKE-HSVR PBL units for rural children

Purpose: To develop and pilot a repository of STEM job simulations through VR and online resources that are readily accessible and aligned to local STEM workforce opportunities for rural adolescents

Hypothesis: These immersive VR experiences will result in increased STEM learning and health science career motivation in rural students in late childhood and early adolescence.

Goal: Support the development of STEM career exploration in rural adolescent students

Vision: An increased STEM and health science career interest in rural adolescent students


SC Impact

While this research improves many aspects of the rural education system in South Carolinaa high percentage of the state's schoolscertain areas will benefit greatly from this focus area and the institute's work at large. 

STEM Career Exposure

Through this research, rural teachers receive the insight and lesson plan ideas they need to carry out STEM content and career development programs. With more exposure to STEM education and career paths, South Carolina's large population of rural students will develop the skills needed to pursue successful STEM careers.

Workforce Development

The institute's project for middle and high school students will involve developing health science content and immersive virtual reality activities. Introducing rural students to health science career opportunities through virtual reality experiences will help develop a strong STEM workforce in South Carolina.

Developmental Skill Building

According to the 2020 Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, fewer than 1 in 4 students in South Carolina are ready for kindergarten. The institute's program for preschool students will create an integrated curriculum that promotes the development of the gross motor skills required with coding and robotics.

Teacher Support

The institute's creation of holistic educational programs and procedures that work effectively in rural school settings alleviates some of the burden on school teachers. Supporting rural teachers will help improve educational outcomes for the many rural students in South Carolina.


Notable Awards, Outcomes and Practical Uses for this Research 

  • Students with Disabilities in STEM (SWDiSTEM) Partnership: Provides different virtual reality equipment and apps to test in the lab space at the Child Development Research Center
  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – Learning and Action in Policy and Partnerships (LAPP) Grant: Leverages microdata from South Carolina Integrated Data System to inform rural community health and educational initiatives
  • SC School District Partnerships: Allow for early implementation and analysis of the STEM career development units

Institute for Rural Education and Development

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.