A small school in a small district in rural Ohio may not be where you would expect to find a cohort of student patent holders. And yet, at Greenon High School (student body 500), in Enon, Ohio (population 2,450), you would.

This becomes even more surprising considering the significant challenges rural schools face in delivering science, technology, engineering and math education and retaining STEM educators. For example, the average rural school offers half as many advanced mathematics courses as those in urban areas, and nearly half of rural students attend a school that offers only one to three advanced mathematics courses. And although rural schools serve nearly one-fifth of the country’s public school students — more than attend the nation’s 85 largest school districts combined — they receive only 17% of state education funding. Imagine how this plays out: academic achievement gaps, few STEM classes, inadequate facilities and low (or no) budget for student projects.

As a rural educator, I see this reality every day. Rural teachers are used to making do with less and finding ways to keep students challenged, engaged and on track within our limited resources. At Greenon Local Schools, out of this creativity came a low-investment, high-impact approach to making STEM education accessible and engaging while still meeting state standards. We call it STEM with a purpose, but it is more commonly known as invention education.

Invention education is a highly flexible, cross-curricular, project-based approach to bringing traditional STEM learning to life through hands-on problem-solving. In our rural setting, it has been especially meaningful to connect students to the real-world challenges of their communities and engage them in deeper STEM learning.

Students start by identifying a local problem. My students were motivated by reports of pollution in our water, and they decided to design a tool to prevent debris from entering sewer systems.

Small-town communities are known to be tight-knit and supportive, which we used to our advantage. Everyone from the Ohio State Department of Transportation to county engineers, a local welding shop, an international specialist in pump technology and a regional environmental nonprofit happily stepped in to advise the students. They were able to learn from these experts, access diverse knowledge and skills that traditional classrooms can’t always offer and gain insight into a variety of potential careers.

Read the full article about STEM learning by Tom Jenkins at The 74.