Ravenna Public Schools, in Ravenna, Michigan, is one of five Rural Tech Project finalist teams empowering students with transferable technology skills. For this U.S. Department of Education innovation challenge, Ravenna created an agricultural technology education program called Grow MainStreet. The program is helping students develop competencies and build portfolio experiences in technology, science, and business — with the goal of stimulating economic growth within the Ravenna agricultural community.
Ravenna is shifting student mindsets around technology careers by exposing them to agriculture applications for emerging technology. Students develop Internet of Things measurement systems, learn about agricultural commodities, design e-commerce enterprises, and manage personal talent profiles. They are building skills in robotics, healthcare, and computer informatics, while gaining insight into job functions across career pathways. One Grow MainStreet module focused on automated beekeeping, with students using sensors to collect data and monitor hive health remotely. Students were also introduced to careers in electrical engineering at John Deere, cybersecurity at Northrop Grumman, and supply chain management at a leading restaurant chain.
Ravenna surveyed students in the first cohort to understand the program’s impact on their academic confidence and career awareness. After completing the program, 93% of students reported feeling more confident in at least one subject; 60% reported that they were more aware of STEAM careers. We spoke with Greg Helmer (Superintendent of Ravenna Public Schools) and Ginger Rohwer (Regional Director of the MiSTEM Network’s Greater West Michigan Region at Grand Valley State University, and Ravenna Community Engagement Manager) about their students’ learning experiences. They shared advice for other schools and their takeaways as they have evolved their program over the past two academic years.
Tell us more about the impact of your program — what outcomes are you most proud of?
Greg: This project was not done just for our district. We really wanted this project to help not only transform teaching and learning in rural America, but also for all school communities — whether they’re urban or suburban. When we started looking at this project, it fell completely in line with our district strategic plan, which is to really impact our teachers and our kids with learning by doing.
And for us, I think the power of this blasts from all these community members and local businesses working with the MiSTEM Network. It allowed us to connect with other experts that I’ve never been able to connect with in 30 years in public education. When you start collaborating and this community develops, the teachers recognize that, and they feel supported.
And for our kids — and I’ve been saying this for a long time — I think we are doing a disservice to kids in this country. Kids can grab a device and be more entertained and learn things instantly that are relevant to them much more than in the traditional classroom. So if we don’t do something like the project that we are doing here in Ravenna, we’re going to continue to fail kids — and we’re not going to do that in rural America. I have fifth graders who drive tractors worth three-quarters of a million dollars and spray the fields by 7:00 a.m. These kids can do amazing things, and we need to do that kind of stuff in schools. We can’t farm our kids out to career tech centers. We need to do the career tech centers in all schools across this country.
Ginger: This project is about preparing students for future jobs, and empowering teachers with the knowledge and tools in their classroom to do this work. From a big-picture view, the MiSTEM Network is all about supporting preparation for students and equipping them with STEM skills through project-based, problem-based, and place-based education.
This project is one of the first times I’ve seen hands-on, problem-based learning integrated with career exploration and development for students. The content is being supplied by local business and industry, as well as nationwide business and industry. And students are making things with their hands. They’re building an IoT device that can measure temperature, motion, heart rate, and water quality. And then right in that same learning experience, they’re looking at local business and industry. What jobs in those companies use those same skills and knowledge? What career pathways are available to them to pursue those jobs? What academic pathways exist to prepare for those jobs?
A lot of times we start with a student and say, “what are you interested in?” But I think we need to populate the imaginations of our students through these kinds of experiences, so they know what’s possible and what they enjoy through learning by doing.
From a big-picture view, the MiSTEM Network is all about supporting preparation for students and equipping them with STEM skills through project-based, problem-based, and place-based education.Ginger Rohwer
What advice would you have for other schools looking to start a new technology education program?
Greg: I think the first thing is to contact Mavin Global. I will admit, I was skeptical at first working with a partner outside of public education. Mavin Global has truly delivered and they have a free platform for any public school across this country. And so when we talk about doing the student credentials and profiling, the platform was already built and their team has been incredibly responsive.
Number two is to be able to connect with experts around the public schools, state agencies like MiSTEM here in Michigan, and experts like Ginger in their region. Too often we try to do this work by ourselves, and there are so many incredible experts and partners who are willing to help our teachers and to help student learning.
Ginger: A district needs to create a strategic plan that ties them to project-based learning and grounds them to do this work. I don’t think this project would’ve been as successful if Ravenna had not already done the work of having a strategic plan that calls out project-based learning and learning by doing. Having that foundation where a district and its leadership team can look to that strategic plan — does this align, yes or no?
The second thing I would say is what Greg said — connect with the community. Connect with business and industry. Connect with supporting agencies around what is relevant to their work. And knowing how to build those partnerships is really critical. So if there isn’t a STEM network in a state, figure out what other opportunities are there to help connect to business and industry, to higher education, to workforce development agencies. There are lots of different ways to do that, but those connections are absolutely essential.
Too often we try to do this work by ourselves, and there are so many incredible experts and partners who are willing to help our teachers and to help student learning.Greg Helmer
What surprised you the most? What do you know now that you didn’t know at the beginning of this project?
Greg: The biggest surprise was how many stakeholders outside of our school district wanted to jump on board with the Rural Tech Project. I am still amazed that people like Ginger from MiSTEM, several professors from Michigan State University, and executive directors from some of the state associations are involved. And then to have a worldwide company like Mavin Global want to partner with us, it’s humbling. We’re a district of a thousand students with not a lot of resources, yet because of this Rural Tech Project, many people partnered with us.
Ginger: The MiSTEM Network is all about connecting business and education, and I think it’s much harder than people expect to bridge these two worlds. Business and industry want a K-12 student to graduate ready to go to work. And K-12 education is looking at developing a human being who can meaningfully contribute to society. And so balancing these perspectives can sometimes be challenging.
The teachers in this project have not been mentioned as much as they should have been. I saw teachers being flexible, being willing to take on new challenges, and being willing to have something not work and keep trying. I think that was possible because they felt supported by their building administrator. Building administration having the backs of teachers and saying, “learning is messy — we’re going to learn and iterate throughout this,” is absolutely critical.
What surprised me was the complexity of bringing together so many different types of community partners in higher education, government, business, and industry with K-12 education. The complexity of partnering is not something to be taken lightly. It’s going to be a journey, it’s going to be complicated, and it’s going to require much effort and communication. I think having folks that are in the role of liaising between those stakeholders is essential. And there’s a skillset that’s required to do that, which involves communication, navigating complex and sometimes political environments, and figuring out how to compromise to bring all these partners together.
Looking ahead: The grand-prize winner announcement and new resources
The Ravenna finalist team currently awaits the announcement of the Rural Tech Project grand-prize winner. Early this fall, the U.S. Department of Education will announce the winner, which will receive an additional $100,000. The challenge is also working with each finalist team to compile and publish lessons learned as a resource for other communities. The teams have all demonstrated that rural communities are powerful centers for educational innovation; their program models can be adapted by other schools across the country to create technology education programs that increase access to careers across industries.