Developing a Skilled Workforce in Rural Iowa Using Advanced Learning Technologies



A team of interdisciplinary researchers from Iowa State University will explore ways to use digital education technologies to effectively develop a robust workforce that will serve rural communities in Iowa.


This one year pilot study, $ 150,000 is supported by the National Science Foundation and will be led by Eliot Vineyard, professor of mechanical engineering. Other researchers on this project include Evrim Baran, associate professor of educational technology; Carlos cardoso, associate professor of industrial design; Thomas daniels, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; Caroline Westort, associate professor of landscape architecture; Kimberly Zarecor, professor of architecture; and Anindita das, Coordinator of the Stakeholder Development Program and Partnerships for 4-H Youth Development Through Outreach and Outreach at Iowa State University.

The goal of the research team is to pilot novel extended reality (XR) compatible STEM educational models that increase interest in STEM career paths among rural students and their families. The project will be developed using a co-design process in collaboration with young people and adults from rural communities with a large number of low-skilled workers. The team’s long-term vision includes developing educational content that can lead students to pursue a range of credentials from a certificate in welding to a graduate degree in engineering. If this initial study shows promising results, the researchers plan to seek a large-scale research grant to further develop the project beyond the pilot study.

XR technologies are one of the research specialties of Winer, who is also director of Iowa State University Virtual reality application center (BULK).

“XR solutions can support active and experiential learning by enhancing hands-on activities, creating simulations of objects and experiences that may not be accessible in the physical world, and promoting learner engagement with challenges. complex real-life problems, ”according to the grant. abstract.

Winer said this project would not be possible without a diverse interdisciplinary group of researchers and other stakeholders. In addition to Iowa State University and Iowa 4-H Youth Development, teachers and staff from the Storm Lake Community School District and members of local community organizations will participate and contribute to the co-design process.

Storm Lake was chosen as the site for these pilot activities because of its rural location with a large and low-skilled workforce employed in the agro-industrial sector. It is an ideal site to study STEM workforce development, according to the researchers, due to its diverse and growing student body from Kindergarten to Grade 12; 64 percent of students in the district are learners of English and 85 percent are students of color. While US census data shows that many rural Iowa communities have seen their populations decline over the past decade, the population of Storm Lake has grown from 10,600 in 2010 to 11,269 in 2020.

In addition to focusing on migrants and refugees living in rural communities such as Storm Lake, the team wants to engage other untapped groups of potential STEM workers such as military veterans, some of whom come from rural areas and might consider going back after their service. . Such efforts can help ease the transition for veterans when they return from active service to civilian life, whether that is going to school, entering the workforce or a combination of both.

“It’s not just about installing the technology itself in these rural areas, it’s also about using that technology strategically and effectively to deliver educational content,” Winer said. “Language and other cultural aspects will be taken into account when developing our strategy for disseminating this content. These rural communities are essential to the well-being of the country as they are the backbone of our food and water production systems.

The project is the first externally funded research to result from a new interdisciplinary initiative, TechTHRIVE, supported by a 2021 program Presidential Interdisciplinary Research Initiative (PIRI) to agree . TechTHRIVE is developed in alignment with another recent interdisciplinary university of Iowa State University project that aims to expand broadband Internet access in rural Iowa. Winer said efforts to improve broadband are critical to the success of XR-enabled models because in many places the current internet infrastructure is not sufficient to support many distance learning opportunities. He attributed it to a combination of price, availability and reliability.

A photo of architecture professor Kimberly E Zarecor.

Zarecor, TechTHRIVE co-lead and researcher on this project, leads an NSF-funded project Iowa Rural Quality of Life Project, that’s how she connected with Winer and others to start TechTHRIVE.

“My experience so far working with rural communities is that the greatest impact comes from truly integrated multidisciplinary efforts that bring together researchers from different parts of the campus and local experts,” Zarecor said. “Such collaborations help meet the specific aspirations and needs of rural populations, which may not be well understood by researchers who have not generally lived in rural areas. Projects like this, which tap into local knowledge and work directly with communities, offer a model for how universities can help solve some of society’s most pressing and complex problems.

Work on this project will begin in October and funding will continue until September 2022.


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