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Rural Education Center receives USDA grant to expand innovative robot distance learning program
COURTESY GRAPHIC This map shows the locations of the school districts served by the Kansas State University Rural Education Center’s RESET program, supported by a USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant.

MANHATTAN — The Kansas State University College of Education’s Rural Education Center recently received its largest grant in history: a telemedicine grant to support STEM education in rural and underserved communities.

The $451,480 Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant will be administered by the Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It will support the center’s Rural Enhancement of STEM Education through Tele-Presence, or RESET, program and purchase robots, microphones and laptops for the 20 schools in 10 Kansas school districts involved in the project. No funds will be used to support personnel salaries.

Kansas schools participating in the grant are Andale High School, Andale; Axtell High School, Axtell; Cheylin High School, Bird City; Buhler High School and Prairie Hills Middle School, both in Buhler; Garden Plain High School, Garden Plain; Jackson Heights High School, Holton; F.L. Schlagle High School, J.C. Harmon High School, Sumner Academy, Washington High School and Wyandotte High School, all in Kansas City; Blue Stem High School, Leon; Ness City High School, Ness City; Osage City High School and Osage City Middle School, Osage City; Sabetha High School and Sabetha Middle School, Sabetha; Troy High School, Troy; and Wetmore High School, Wetmore.

Project RESET will acquire tele-presence equipment necessary to support STEM education learning experiences in rural schools, with the Rural Education Center serving as the hub site for providing training, curriculum, instructors and additional resources to aid its partner rural schools.

Debbie Mercer, dean of the K-State College of Education, said this grant addresses a critical need in schools across Kansas — one that came into sharp focus with the emergence of COVID-19.

“This is a phenomenal example of how College of Education faculty are positively impacting some of the most complex and labyrinth-like issues in our profession,” Mercer said. “This initiative addresses two at the top of the list: finding STEM teachers and providing schools with technology that levels the playing field for rural schools or those in underserved or low socio-economic communities.”

The grant expands a previous Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant the Rural Education Center received in December 2019. The $146,031 award is similar to the new grant and involved eight rural districts and nine schools.

Both grants were written by College of Education faculty members Spencer Clark, Rural Education Center director and associate professor of curriculum and instruction, and Lori Goodson, Rural Education Center assistant director and assistant professor of curriculum and instruction. Combined, the two grants will support 29 schools in 18 districts with a total of 118 Double Robotics robots and 23 Ohmni robots.

“This grant is an important part of our vision to create a rural distance learning network across the state,” Clark said. “It is another step toward creating more equitable access to educational opportunities for rural students.” 

For Goodson, it’s both professional and personal.

“It’s exciting to see the Rural Education Center providing support for our rural education partners,” Goodson said. “As a product of a small rural school in northwest Missouri, I know the value of those small districts, and I’m glad to be a part of this effort.”

Entering its fifth decade, the Center for Rural Education and Small Schools was renamed the Rural Education Center in Spring 2019.

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents in 1978, the center focuses on meeting the needs of rural schools in the state of Kansas. Clark and Goodson emphasize advocacy for rural schools and their communities by pursuing grant opportunities and other sources of funding to support various rural educational projects. They will also conduct research and coordinate other educational activities to support the learning opportunities for rural students and teachers. Clark and Goodson look forward to supporting current curriculum initiatives and goals associated with the Kansas State Department of Education school redesign, STE(A)M education, career and technical education place-based education, and civic engagement in rural schools.