After a robust semester of STEM learning in and out of the classroom, the Rural Tech Project’s five finalist teams took time to reflect on the first few months of a two-year pilot program. Despite significant challenges with virtual learning and an unexpected later start to the school year, high school students and educators engaged in real-world problem-solving and connected with local industry leaders through innovative, hands-on skills development programs. Learn more about each finalist team and read on for the latest updates.

iLEAD Academy: Cross-sector support of student advancement

iLEAD Academy’s virtual computer science program reaches five rural high schools, in which students can earn multiple work certifications to demonstrate mastery in digital literacy, computational thinking, programming languages, networking, and cybersecurity. Along with the suite of virtual classes offered this semester, iLEAD Academy led a series of engagements for students to collaborate and practice career skills. The educator team organized a mock interview event at Northern Kentucky University, where leading employers in the technology and healthcare industries interviewed more than 90 iLEAD students. Student responses were overwhelmingly positive; survey comments included “every high school should do this” and that it was exciting to “see [panelists and interviewers] actually care about what [the students] we’re doing.”

As a means of sustaining meaningful industry support, the educator team also spearheaded an advisory board, bringing together a group of influential technology industry employers, public policymakers, and educators. In addition, they launched the Academy’s INTERalliance chapter, where students gather on weekends for competitions and challenges, and work on projects to compete in INTERalliance’s annual TechOlympics.

Within the in-school lessons, many virtual students (and instructors) experienced challenges — including not having a quiet area to participate in class, not being able to turn on their cameras, and not being able to speak except in chat. In addition to changes already implemented, the team is planning to organize student discussions in order to co-create best practices for virtual learning.

Louisa County Public Schools (LCPS) Cybersecurity Program: Workforce readiness through hands-on activities

LCPS focuses on supporting students in obtaining skills and credentials to compete for cybersecurity jobs, a dramatically growing field. Using competency-based education, the pathway is designed with both a two-year and four-year option for students to choose the pace that works best for them. A key learning this semester was why students would want to take this course; a mid-semester survey and an end-of-semester survey asked about student goals and found that students were most excited “to gain work experience.”

As one educator noted, “It [was] evident that students truly enjoyed taking [the] class and learned a great deal … Overall, students loved the hands-on activities. They enjoyed working in the lab and solving issues with real-life applications.” One student noted, “I really hope that I can do this class again in 11th or 12th [grade].” Despite full enrollment, the teacher even added students mid-semester as the class gained popularity among students. In total, 43 students are anticipated to take the Test Out cybersecurity certification test in Spring 2022.

Premont ISD in Partnership with Rural Schools Innovation Zone (RSIZ): Pairing an entrepreneurial mindset with technical skills

At the RSIZ Tech Startup Incubator, learners are developing technology-enabled solutions to address academy-related challenges in the region, and they’re preparing to pitch their solutions to a judging panel at the end of the year. The two current student teams have honed their qualitative research and analytical skills over the semester, pinpointing problems in the community that could be solved with technology. One team has chosen to focus on the challenges educators have tracking students during arrival and dismissal, and those of school athletic trainers who deal with student injuries without close proximity to hospitals. Another team has narrowed in on the challenges small municipalities often have finding and securing funding for public projects. This team aims to develop an online portal or marketplace to help small towns and cities identify grant opportunities and hire grant writers.

The teams are now soliciting early feedback from stakeholders to determine the feasibility of their concepts, the potential reach of technology solutions, and potential roadblocks. A technology advisor will coach teams as they develop their products, and the teams will pitch their solutions to a panel of experts at the end of the school year.

From a curriculum perspective, the teams’ educators have begun to understand key structural nuances. One educator noted “virtual instruction is [already] tough for teenagers, [and] when you have something highly technical, I think they get frustrated and don’t feel like they can ask for help.” CareerCraft, the local organization administering the Tech Startup Incubator, plans to add additional staffing to support the educator leads this semester to ensure that the student prototypes are moving forward. In future years, they plan to increase the cadence of meetings to weekly or bi-weekly to maintain momentum throughout the academic year.

Ravenna Public Schools (RPS): Translating localized IoT experience to career navigation

The RPS educator team builds on ambition to teach and articulate transferable technology skills. In the Precision Agriculture Module, students are asked to assemble an Internet of Things-enabled device that measures temperature, publish that data to Google Cloud, and develop a data model to construct a cybersecurity threat. Students are then introduced to related careers and educational programs, including electrical engineering and aerospace. Nearly 70 students have completed the module.

A key learning has been the need for technology to support educators teaching this type of course if the class sizes are to remain large. Future classes will feature testing of the students’ IoT devices and a foundational technology skills unit. This semester, educators are trying out new frameworks to calculate STEM index scores for job functions from employers in the West Michigan region (both urban and rural). Once completed, the index will be used to score students, indicating to the students what jobs they would be eligible for in the region.

Woodlake High School’s (WHS) Aviation Pathway: Helping math take flight

The WHS Aviation Pathway’s project-based learning engages students in mathematical exploration. When asked to select what they are hoping to learn or do in Math for Aviation, “gain hands-on experience” was the most popular goal. Of the 28 students enrolled, 19 are already confirmed to continue next year.

In support of their in-class learning, students had opportunities to engage with the local aviation community. They heard from a former military pilot and current airline captain, as well as a university professor. Several students volunteered at the local Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) chapter for their Annual Fly for Food event, where the community is invited to donate a bag of non-perishable food in exchange for a free flight. WHS also helped students engage in extracurricular activities at nearby Reedley College’s Aviation Club. In the upcoming semester, the class is planning to continue these types of engagements due to their popularity.

The educator team also plans to continue discussions around providing hybrid instruction, securing additional educators, using available software, and providing FAA drone pilot certification and OSHA 10 General Industry card.

Growing a community of rural innovators

Interdisciplinary learning has proven to be an effective educational tool across the diverse program teams. As these teams continue to iterate and refine their programs, community connections, consistent feedback structures, and strategies for enhancing virtual learning environments become even more important.

Find more information about the finalist teams and their programs, and if you are interested in learning more about how your community or industry can support this project, you can contact a team using the contact information provided on its respective page. You can also email the Rural Tech Project at

See lessons learned and resources from the Rural Tech Project teams.

See lessons learned and resources from the Rural Tech Project teams.