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Developing a skilled workforce in rural Iowa using advanced learning technologies

Posted Oct 4, 2021

A team of interdisciplinary researchers at Iowa State University will study ways that they can utilize digital teaching technologies to effectively develop a robust workforce that will serve Iowa’s rural communities.

This one-year, $150,000 pilot study is supported by the National Science Foundation and will be led by Eliot Winer, 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 teaching professor of electrical and computer engineering; Caroline Westort, associate professor of landscape architecture; Kimberly Zarecor, professor of architecture; and Anindita Das, stakeholder and partnership development program coordinator for 4-H Youth Development through Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

The research team’s goal is to pilot new Extended Reality (XR)-enabled 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 youth and adults from rural communities with large numbers of low-skill workers. The team’s long-term vision includes developing educational content that can lead students to pursue a range of educational credentials from a certificate in welding to an advanced degree in engineering. If this initial study yields promising results, the researchers plan to pursue a large-scale research grant to further develop the project beyond the pilot study.

XR technologies is one of the research specialties of Winer, who also serves as the director of Iowa State University’s Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC).

“XR-enabled 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 learners’ engagement with complex real-life problems,” according to the grant abstract.

Eliot Winer, professor of mechanical engineering.

Winer said this project would not be possible without a diverse, interdisciplinary group of both 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, low-skilled workforce employed in the agroindustrial sector. It is an ideal site for studying STEM workforce development, according to the researchers, because of its diverse and growing K-12 student population; 64 percent of students in the district are English Language Learners and 85 percent are students of color. While data from the U.S. Census shows that many of Iowa’s rural communities declined in population over the past decade, Storm Lake’s population has risen 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 may plan to return there after their service. Such efforts can help ease the transition for veterans as they move from active duty back to civilian life, whether that be going to school, entering the workforce or a combination of the two.

“It’s not just about putting the technology itself in these rural areas, but it’s also about using that technology in a strategic and effective way to deliver educational content,” said Winer. “Language and other cultural aspects will be taken into consideration as we develop our strategy for delivering that content. These rural communities are critical 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 Presidential Interdisciplinary Research Initiative (PIRI) grant . TechTHRIVE is being developed in alignment with another recent interdisciplinary Iowa State University project which aims to expand broadband internet access in rural parts of Iowa. Winer said that 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 extensive distance learning opportunities. He attributed it to a combination of price, availability and reliability.

Kimberly Zarecor, professor of architecture.

Zarecor, a co-leader of TechTHRIVE and a researcher on this project, leads a NSF-funded project about rural quality of life in Iowa, which is 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 researchers from different parts of campus and local experts together,” said Zarecor. “Such collaborations make it possible to address the specific aspirations and needs of rural people, which may not be well-understood by researchers who typically have not lived in a rural place. Projects like this, that leverage place-based knowledge and work directly with communities, offer a model for how academia can help to address some of society’s most urgent and complex problems.”

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