Could drones, hydroponic agriculture, GPS tracking, and glow-in-the-dark horseshoes be among the home-grown technological innovations that will reshape the Appalachian economy?
One Hazard-based nonprofit thinks so, and it’s working to ensure that teachers have the training and resources they need to inspire the region’s students and give them a reason to stay home after graduation to help revitalize their communities.
The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative serves more than 53,000 educators and children across 21 school districts in southeastern Kentucky. Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the organization, and Robert Brown, a professional learning lead, appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the innovative learning opportunities that KVEC supports.
KVEC is one of eight such cooperatives (what some states call educational service agencies) in the commonwealth. Hawkins says the co-op provides professional development opportunities for teachers that focus on leadership and learning. It also fosters collaboration among school districts in the co-op’s service area and facilitates group purchases so schools can get lower prices for classroom resources.
Hawkins credits the Kentucky Department of Education for creating one of the nation’s best digital architectures to connect public schools across the state. He says KVEC has built on that infrastructure to help expand the range of services it can offer the schools it serves.
“It really has opened up a lot of doors and a lot of opportunities for us to share one with another and create opportunities for our students to be connected to the broader world in ways that we have not before,” says Hawkins.
Brown adds that these high-speed internet connections are crucial to a region that has no major population center or a regional university.
“It’s important to think about how we can get the resources we need to the teachers so that we can get these to the students,” says Brown. “One of the ways to do this is through digital media.”
Fostering a New Generation of Problem-Solvers
Thanks to a $30 million federal Race to the Top grant, KVEC has been able bring even more technology and tech-based opportunities to its member schools. (KVEC was one of five organizations nationwide to receive funding under the four-year grant starting in 2013.) Hawkins says they’ve used the money to create “next generation classrooms” in each of its districts. These classrooms include large, touch-screen displays, high quality sound and camera systems, and tablet computers for every student.
The goal of this Appalachian Renaissance Initiative (ARI) is to help increase opportunities for personalized learning, improve college and career readiness, and encourage students to tackle real-life problems facing their communities. Schools can compete for mini-grants to fund special student projects designed to find solutions to those challenges.
“The exciting thing about the ARI grant is that teachers are used to working on a shoestring budget,” says Kelli Thompson, who is a student agency lead for the project. “But when you give a teacher $1,000 to create an innovative project or activity in their classroom, and they get so excited about what they’re doing, that’s contagious.”
Already students are exploring ways to grow fish and vegetables using hydroponic systems. They’ve developed glow-in-the-dark horseshoes that will make nighttime riding safer and a GPS tracker that can facilitate rescuing people stranded in the rugged Appalachian terrain. And students have designed and built moveable tiny homes that can provide safe, affordable housing for neighbors in need of shelter.
“We really want to do something that’s not just going to impact your grade,” says Belfry High School freshman Jared Mueller in a KVEC promotional video. “You want to do something that’s going to impact your community.”
These projects benefit the students and their schools as well. Sales of the tiny houses and luminescent horseshoes are returning profits to the schools that created them. And students are learning skills that can help them get good-paying jobs or even start their own businesses in their hometowns.
“Everyone who leaves, you can ask them, they love the mountains here… but they hate the economy, they hate the jobs.” says Pike County Central High School senior Taryn Syck. “That’s all something that you can change.”
“They really like the area, they really like their connection to place,” says Hawkins. “They are engaged in place-making now and having the opportunity to be entrepreneurial and figure out how they can engage in the new workforce and the new economy – [that’s] critical to the work that we do in reinventing rural America.”
Flying into Future Jobs
KVEC is also helping teachers and students take to the skies. The co-op is partnering with local authorities in Knott and Perry Counties, Hazard Community and Technical College, and others to create USA Drone Port, a facility to design, build, and test small, unmanned aircraft and to train people how to pilot them.
Hawkins says the project is slated for 70 acres of donated mountaintop land near Hazard. Once completed, the drone port will be the only facility of its kind in the eastern United States, he says. And it will give young eastern Kentuckians another path to a high-tech future without having to leave home.
“Drones will be a part of the solution going forward, whether it’s to test for moisture in a forest to determine whether it’s susceptible to having a wildfire break out, or be able to deliver medicine to people in remote areas,” says Hawkins. “We want to be on the front edge of that wave.”
Other schools in the cooperative have aeronautics classes where students repair and pilot airplanes. Hawkins says that can help prepare kids to work in the state’s burgeoning aerospace industry.
Helping Teachers Learn Too
KVEC is also using its digital infrastructure to make more professional development opportunities available for the region’s teachers. One such effort enables educators to earn micro-credentials in specific skills or topics. The co-op recently convened a meeting of educators and administrators from around the country interested in this new way to advance teacher training.
“They had come to do a conversation about how micro-credentials can bring meaningful, competency based, just-in-time professional learning for our educators,” says Brown.
When teachers successfully complete a micro-credential course, they receive a digital badge for that skill that they can then post on their Facebook or Linkedin pages or on their online résumé. Brown says Kentucky teachers can’t yet get professional credit for micro-credentials, but he hopes they will eventually help teachers earn Rank 2 certifications as part of their master’s degree studies.
“Rigor is a concern,” says Brown. “However I think there’s a wonderful opportunity for institutions of higher ed to use micro-credentials within their master’s programs…. for teachers to work on those skills that their students currently need.”