Jennifer Seelig was working on her dissertation in the Northwoods in 2017 when the Wisconsin Center for Education Research reached out to her about involving teachers in education research.
A former rural teacher herself, Seelig jumped on board to help plan the first Teacher Speakout! event and is now the assistant director of WCER’s Rural Educators Research and Implementation Center. On Friday and Saturday, RERIC hosted 19 teachers from the state’s rural districts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the event’s third year.
“Centering teachers’ voices would be an effective way to engage them with research we’re already doing at WCER, as well as interest researchers in connecting with teachers,” Seelig said about the event’s origins. “Folks often don’t think of rural schools as places to do research.”
After the first two years, RERIC considered how to create stronger “professional learning communities” for rural teachers who may be isolated with little access to colleagues in their field, Seelig said. One way was to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as a specific subject area. Eight rural teachers discussed their personal experiences as STEM educators during a Friday panel.
Science and math teacher Jessica Dennis, who represented Washington Island, called her island district a “magical place” where students don’t just learn about wood or Lyme disease on paper. Instead, they have direct access to wooded areas that directly influence what they’re learning based on their surroundings.
In the Pecatonica Area School District, high school science teacher Jacob Roberts said he enjoys the flexibility to change up his lesson plans day to day in a small district. For instance, he teaches climate change by referencing rates of flooding in the Pecatonica River, and “the students get that right away. It’s not political to them.”
“Where you live should not limit your opportunity,” Roberts said. “Sometimes we can’t afford some of the expensive scientific experiments without grants … so we need to continually seek out ways to get students in contact with technology and opportunities and re-instill in them that they’re capable of great things regardless of where they live.”
Moderating the panel in the UW's School of Education, Seelig made sure to raise questions about higher education, such as how universities like UW-Madison can better engage teachers in grant proposals.
High school computer science, business and science teacher Olivia Dachel mentioned the importance of institutions removing barriers, such as transportation, when hosting events or creating opportunities for rural teachers. High school science teacher Jackie Drews discussed the difficult time commitment of deciphering which of seemingly endless grants to apply for.
“Getting someone to narrow it down for me would be absolutely amazing,” Drews said. “That would be the most useful thing anyone could do for me in terms of trying to find funding and trying to find new opportunities for students.”
Astronomy professor and WCER director Bob Mathieu said in an interview that, though many researchers on campus are already interested in rural Wisconsin, RERIC has offered a “place of connection” for people to nucleate that interest and directly connect with one another. Opening Friday morning’s panel, Mathieu said he was eager to hear STEM perspectives from rural teachers.
“We, being in a city, are constantly bringing students to campus to enrich and expand their STEM experiences. It is my guess that there are many, many opportunities to do the same in rural Wisconsin,” Mathieu said. “How do we give them the opportunities to follow what may be their life path?”