Only three years ago, a stretch of land off King Coal Highway in Mingo County, West Virginia, was a deserted strip mine. Today, it’s Mingo Central Comprehensive High School, complete with a 3D printer, a 1-to-1 laptop program, interactive whiteboards, and a hands-on pre-engineering program that gives students free college credit from West Virginia University.

As a rural county at the southern tip of the state, Mingo County has relied on grants, and state and local funds to infuse its classrooms with modern technology. (In West Virginia, each county is one school district.) It’s been no easy feat for the county, which has been hit hard by the recession, on top of its small tax base. But, as Mingo County STEM Coordinator Richard Duncan puts it, “Somehow we beat that.”

In Pittsburgh and nationally, educators have seen how integrating meaningful technology into schools and informal learning spaces engages kids, introduces them to career paths, and equips them with critical 21st century skills. But for rural communities like Mingo County, providing students with the same resources comes with a bevy of extra challenges that make access tougher, and at the same time, all the more critical.

A little over half of all schools in West Virginia are rural, according to the Rural School and Community Trust. Many of these rural communities’ economies have revolved around coal since the early 19th century. Mingo County is no exception, and the area’s ties to coal are evident in the mascot of the two-year-old high school—the miner.

But over the last two decades, the downsizing of the coal industry has caused Mingo County and the surrounding Appalachian region to fall on even tougher economic times. As coal jobs drained out of the area, the poverty rate climbed to the point that Mingo County’s schools now participate in a community eligibility option, meaning the poverty rate is high enough for every student to automatically receive free breakfast and lunch. Economic opportunity was elsewhere.

“The young people, we find, when they do find jobs, it’s not here.”  

“The young people, we find, when they do find jobs, it’s not here,” Duncan said.

Duncan, who is an area native, says as coal jobs continue to dwindle, access to new technology and programs gives kids the chance to see the opportunities outside the area in a way they haven’t been able to before.

One of the new programs Mingo County is leveraging is a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. Through a $1.5 million grant from the

National Science Foundation, the CREATE Lab is expanding its Arts and Bots program into all Mingo County middle schools as well as Springdale Junior-Senior High School in Pennsylvania. Arts and Bots lets students build and program their own robots using a mix of robotic components, a visual programming tool, and traditional craft materials.

“It’s tough to show the kids, ‘Hey, you’re going to use this somewhere,’ when they’ve never seen that job,” Duncan says of making STEM skills seem applicable. “That’s why we’ve been pulling on the CREATE Lab and our other partners, because we want the kids to see what else is going on outside of this area.”

Geographic isolation, over mountains and sometimes even roads in need of repair, makes it harder for rural kids to get exposure to the types of careers Pittsburgh kids might see. But isolation and distance also make it tougher for teachers to be exposed to learning innovations.

One of the main resources for rural teachers is Marshall University’s June Harless Center for Rural Educational Research and Development, which provides a myriad of unique professional development opportunities. It’s also one of the CREATE Lab’s satellite locations, meaning it helps expand the lab’s projects into rural places.

Photo courtesy of Carrie-Meghan Quick-Blanco

“That technology from Pittsburgh is here in the coal fields of West Virginia, thanks to the funding that we’ve gotten so far. Otherwise, teachers would have never had the chance to be exposed to these things,” says Carrie-Meghan Quick-Blanco, a language and international studies specialist and CREATE Lab’s point person at the Harless Center. She recalls an Arts and Bots workshop where a teacher who was intimidated enough by technology that she barely used email ended up building and programming an elaborate robot because the equipment is so hands-on.

The Center for Arts and Education at West Liberty University provides rural teachers support to help them incorporate the arts into different disciplines.  The center also partners with the Mattress Factory and the City Theatre to offer professional development and cover the expenses for field trips to their locations. However, those trips can take hours out of a school day, which is part of the motivation for also placing teaching artists in classrooms.

“I think it’s important to go to the schools and to the teachers as well as them coming to one of our partners or us,” says Lou Karas, director of Center for Arts and Education. “That’s really important when you’re talking about working in smaller, rural communities. You have to go both ways.”

Lynne Schrum, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at West Virginia University (WVU), also sees the importance of ensuring rural educators don’t have to travel hours to connect with high-quality resources. She has  developed a new program at WVU where education students return to their home county to student teach in their last year and submit their coursework electronically.

“It’s really important because some rural areas have trouble getting people to move there to be teachers, or speech pathologists, or counselors, because they don’t have roots there,” Schrum says. “So what we want to do is keep people in their home communities, doing as little up here in Morgantown as necessary, in order to have sustainable jobs and quality educators.”

It’s a prime example of how technology can bridge gaps across geography in a way that was never possible before. And Schrum adds these links are especially crucial for kids living in rural communities. It can open a whole new world for them.

“In a lot of rural West Virginia, people don’t have the possibility of seeing and visiting things, or exploring things in person that people in the city might have,” says Schrum. “But they can do all those things online. They can virtually see and experience things that were never possible before.”

At one workshop a teacher who was intimidated enough by technology that she barely used email ended up building and programming an elaborate robot.

Of course, to virtually see and learn, students need access to high speed internet, another hurdle for many rural families. Only 59 percent of West Virginia households subscribe to broadband service, according to a 2011 report by the Department of Commerce. Comparatively, the national average is 68 percent. Therefore, although every public school in the state is now equipped with broadband internet, digital learning can’t really live up to its potential if students lack high speed internet to continue with homework and projects at home.

“They’re going to an environment that’s digital, but they can’t necessarily extrapolate that if they go home and they don’t have access,” says John Ross, an EdTech consultant, researcher, and author who has lived and worked in rural districts. “It’s not just typing up a Word document, it’s having access to rich media, to simulations, to animations, to pulling down real time data, to communication and collaboration.”

Mike Green, vice president of the West Virginia Board of Education and head of

its technology committee, sees expanding high-speed internet access into more rural homes as a top priority in making learning a seamless experience.

“The ultimate goal is to provide sufficient, broadband internet access to our children regardless of whether they’re in a brick-and-mortar school or they’re in their home or local library. The goal is to be able to provide 24-hour learning in the state,” Green says. He added that there are a number of possible long-term approaches to increasing access, including potentially partnering with local service providers or foundations to offer subsidies.

Plus, Schrum says being connected helps students see value in further education.

“I think that sometimes in rural counties, the idea of going to college doesn’t seem viable on multiple levels, emotionally, financially, purposefully,” says Schrum. “But as more and more jobs traditionally in rural areas disappear, like coal mining jobs for example, then we have to prepare those people for new careers that will allow them a full measure of a real quality life.”

Top photo/Jimmy Emerson