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College of Education

USC researchers leading efforts to measure rural STEM education

A team of researchers in the College of Education aims to help rural schools prepare students for the STEM workforce, one of the fastest-growing U.S. employment sectors.

Professors Matt Irvin, Christine DiStefano, Angie Starrett and Jin Liu received two grants totaling $2.1 million from the National Science Foundation to support IMMERSE — the Institute for Measurement MEthodology in Rural STEM Education — which trains researchers to use sound measurement practices to assess rural STEM education.

Knowing gaps in rural STEM education can help teachers better prepare students for STEM jobs, which require technical skills and advanced training.

“Through our national institute, we have a unique opportunity to assist researchers from across the U.S., further research in rural education, provide psychometric training and establish USC as a leader in all of these areas,” says Irvin, the principal investigator.

When industries make investments in rural areas, they provide career opportunities for youth who wish to stay in their community. Though rural communities hold great promise, they remain understudied and underutilized — hiding opportunities for STEM innovation, workforce development and diversification, says DiStefano, the co-principal investigator.

As Starrett, the project manager explains, “Our institute, comprised of rural scholars from across the nation, is uniquely poised to identify and leverage many of the protective factors inherent in rural schools and communities. IMMERSE fellows, faculty and consulting experts are unified in our desire to curb outmigration and promote rural community renewal and sustainability through STEM education and workforce development.”

In South Carolina, STEM career opportunities include engineering, agribusiness, automotive, manufacturing and technology. College faculty members are committed to making sure students from all areas of the state are ready and equipped to work in these industries.

“Schools and teachers play a big role in educating and motivating rural students to pursue STEM coursework and seek out careers that utilize these skills,” Irvin says. “As an educational psychologist focused on rural education, I know that our program, IMMERSE, can provide students, parents, schools, communities and policymakers with sound research to set up our state for success.”

The IMMERSE team trains academic professionals in psychometric techniques, the study of knowledge, intellect and skill, and teaches them how to apply these methods to rural schools and communities, which have unique strengths and needs. Scholars gain expertise in areas such as test and survey construction practices, design strategies and analysis techniques.

“Teaching survey design and scale validation to students showed me the need for high-quality measurement tools in my research,” Liu says. “IMMERSE helps scholars meet this need in their own research by designing methodologies and sharing them with researchers around the states.”

Academics can apply for the IMMERSE fellowship program, which provides year-long training and mentoring by USC faculty and outside experts. Fellows come from across the United States and represent a diverse set of rural scholars, including researchers from historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and Tribal colleges and universities.

The IMMERSE team’s interest in rural research goes beyond their scholarship. Irvin grew up in the rural Midwest and saw firsthand how job opportunities in local industries impacted his friends’ hopes and future plans.

That experience inspired him to become a research scientist at the first national research center on rural education at the University of North Carolina, where for five years, he investigated these issues in rural schools across the nation. At the University of South Carolina, he has focused his research on STEM education in particular.

The team’s initial grant focused on training professors on grant submissions, publications and presentations. The additional multi-year award will expand on their work and bring postdoctoral scholars to USC for advanced training in measurement, educational psychology and rural education.

“Our greatest strength is that we work together as a unified team — each member brings a unique set of skills and experiences that together, make the institute more than a sum of its parts,” DiStefano says. “By sharing our areas of expertise, we have not only learned from each other, but can take these experiences and pass them along to our “students” from across the country.”

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