The word rural is not instinctually synonymous with cutting-edge education, nor state-of-the-art technological facilities; however, in Belleville, Kansas-a town with a population of only 2000 people-Jennifer Mahin is completely flipping this notion on its head. Jennifer is an elementary school STEM teacher who is facilitating a complete paradigm shift within her small community through her maker space by teaching her elementary students algorithms, coding, robotics, and so much more!
Rural by Choice
Jennifer kept reiterating throughout our conversation the concept of “rural by choice”. As someone from rural America, I was greatly intrigued by what she meant. “I want my kids to feel like they have a place here. They can come back to rural areas and have jobs…I want them to feel like we can teach you coding and robotics and you can flourish in a rural area.” In a time when the urban-rural education divide is increasing, having empowered teachers like Jennifer to motivate rural students to enter STEM and return home is of the utmost importance.
Many gifted young people in rural communities view college as a one-way ticket out of their small hometown. This exodus of young college-educated workers from rural areas is known as Brain Drain and it poses a serious threat to the socio-economic vitality of small-town America. In the article, Rural Brain Drain, social scientists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas point out that there is a disparity between how students are treated in rural schools based on their ability. “As achievers are pushed, prodded, and cultivated to leave, they credit their teachers for being integral to their success. The stayers view school as an alienating experience and zoom into the labor force because few people are invested in keeping them on the postsecondary track.” (Carr, Kefalas, 2009) Jennifer’s spearheading work in her elementary school STEM program is sure to help mitigate the effects of Brain Drain. Jennifer’s biggest goal is to teach her students that they can get that award-winning education and hands-on experience even in a small rural town!
The Genesis of a STEM Pioneer
When Jennifer moved to Belleville she was armed with the goal of becoming an instructional technology specialist while teaching 5th-grade math and social studies and had no plan to get involved with STEM. She knew that the mundane approach to teaching social studies was not something that she was interested in, so she decided to add some flavor to her course by incorporating choice and technology. Instead of forcing her students to take a multiple choice test that neither the students wanted to take, nor she wanted to grade, she decided to allow them to choose how to demonstrate their understanding. Some students created a blog from the perspective of an early settler, others used Flipgrid to create skits where they acted out certain situations from history. “I wasn’t just teaching a lesson, I was creating an experience for them. You will remember that lesson that you got to choose, and how you created it. That attaches meaning to it and you get more out of it when you collaborate with your peers.”
As Jennifer grew in knowledge and expertise, she became increasingly more interested in STEM, and her principal took notice and decided to change her position to 80% STEM and 20% tech integration. Jennifer started with her STEM program from the ground floor; at this time, there was not a lot of information about elementary STEM education. Jennifer’s catalyst to building a top-tier STEM program occurred while she was on a field trip with her school to a science center. “They did a huge hands-on STEM project and at that time I couldn’t grasp how we were spending money to drive two hours away for something that we could do in our classroom if we only had the resources.” This experience set Jennifer into motion creating a space and culture where her students would be able to access technology in their own school and have the ability to learn through a project-based model.
Jennifer wanted to create a place where all of her elementary school students could access STEM project-based learning. In a rural area, I was mad that we had to drive two hours to get a STEM experience. None of our kids were getting project-based learning and I made it my mission and I was like if I am going to have a STEM program it is going to be fabulous. The number one challenge facing rural schools is funding, and this was no exception for Jennifer. She wrote many grants in order to acquire the necessary robotics, 3D printers, hand tools, and computers to create her maker space.
A maker space is a place where STEM classes occur and students are able to conduct hands-on projects where you are bridging the gap between experience and curriculum, essentially applied learning. Jennifer believes it is imperative in today’s world to teach our young learners how to code. “Coding and computer science in general really give students problem solving skills and critical thinking skills…STEM is one of the few places where it’s okay to fail because you are learning how to fix it. You’re learning how to take something that’s not working and engineer it to make it successful and beautiful.” It isn’t simply about teaching her students these skills, rather, it is fostering a space where rural students are able to receive a top notch technological education! “I don’t want my kids to be held back because of their location.
Jennifer’s maker space and program grew into something bigger than she had imagined it would. The maker space was such an important place for her and her students because of the immense amount of growth that she witnessed within them, and she knew that she wanted to open this type of learning to other teachers. Jennifer has opened up her maker space to the entire elementary school so that other teachers can access the resources and technology that the maker space has! She also has compiled hundreds of lessons that she meticulously organized and categorized so that all of her teachers are able to use her lessons. They eventually want to open the maker space up for the entire community including church groups and after-school clubs, so that others can create, build, and bring a vision to life! When I asked what she wants others to gather from the maker space, she simply says, “I want people to know that if I was able to accomplish creating this high tech facility in Belleville, Kansas, a town with 2000 people, then you can do it anywhere.”
OKIOCAM with STEM
The OKIOCAM has had such a huge benefit for Jennifer when it comes to teaching younger students difficult concepts like coding and algorithms. “When you are teaching young students a complicated subject like coding, being able to clearly demonstrate and model is paramount!” Jennifer uses her OKIOCAM at the front of the classroom to physically fill out the color code in order for her students to replicate that on the floor right alongside her. This occurs in real time, which allows her students to really understand the sequential thinking necessary for grasping coding.
Jennifer has yet to find a document camera that is as easy to use, portable, and as useful as the OKIOCAM. “I haven’t found anything better, there is really nothing bad to say about the OKIOCAM. It blends into all of my STEM lessons and really helps me explicate difficult concepts and problems to my young learners.” One of her student’s favorite features of OKIOCAM is stop motion. Jennifer uses her OKIOCAM together with her students to create joint stop motion films using legos and other materials! OKIOCAM’s versatility as an education tool is truly unrivaled, and Jennifer using it to teach young learners coding is a testament to this fact.
Heart of Innovation
Jennifer is democratizing education for rural students of all abilities through her STEM program and maker space. She is giving these students and her community access to an entirely new language that they previously were not privy to. She is a passionate, driven, and successful educator who is impacting her school, community, and the larger STEM society. I know that we will be seeing lots of innovative and ingenious things coming from her in the coming years.
Jennifer Mahin is a STEM Teacher at East Elementary School in Belleville, Kansas where she creates project-based activities and lessons for 250-300 elementary school students. She worked tirelessly to fund her maker space and STEM classroom where she received over $20,000 to acquire the necessary resources and technology to offer state-of-the-art lessons to her students. Make sure you follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn where she shares ideas for technology integration and STEM.
This story is a series where we honor extraordinary educators who are making a difference in their communities with OKIOCAM. This story is written by Ben Jones.
Carr, Patrick J., and Maria J. Kefalas. “The Rural Brain Drain.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 Sept. 2009, https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-rural-brain-drain/.