Rural school STEM success: Practices contributing to high STEM performance in rural Victorian government secondary schools

Steve Murphy

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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STEM (an acronym generated from the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education is viewed internationally as essential for preparing a workforce and a citizenry able to ensure a safe, healthy, sustainable, and economically prosperous future. Australia, similar to other English speaking Western nations, is particularly focused on improving STEM education given its decreasing participation rates in further STEM study and STEM careers, and a relative decline in school STEM achievement. Most Australian jurisdictions have released STEM education policies in recent years, advocating for an array of STEM education practices with varying levels of support from research. The performance of Australian students in rural schools in STEM is well behind that of their metropolitan counterparts, suggesting the need to improve STEM education is particularly important in rural schools. Unfortunately, there are few strategies aiming to address this in Australian STEM education policies, and research evidence about STEM education in rural schools is scant, particularly in Australian contexts.
This study sought to address this deficit by first investigating the relative success of rural Victorian secondary schools in STEM education, and then by studying the STEM education practices of the schools with relatively high participation and achievement in senior STEM subjects. The relative success of rural schools was investigated in Phase One of this study through the analysis of secondary data collected by the Victorian Department of Education and Training (DET), including school location, socio-economic status (SES), and mean school enrolment and achievement in senior STEM subjects, in 2014, 2015 and 2016. This analysis demonstrated that rural school success in STEM subject enrolment and achievement varied, and also allowed the identification of relatively high STEM performing rural Victorian government secondary schools. Case studies were conducted of four of these schools in Phase Two of this study. Data were collected through site visits, interviews with principals and STEM teachers, group interviews with senior students, and sampling school documents. Thematic analysis of the data from each school identified practices that contributed to each school’s STEM success, as well as factors that facilitated these practices. Multi-case synthesis identified practice themes common across the four sites, as well as highlighting differences. Finally, the practices that comprised effective STEM education in these rural schools were compared to those factors proposed to contribute to effective STEM education by researchers, and by Australian STEM education strategies.
While Phase One of this study demonstrated that rural Victorian schools do tend to underperform in STEM, aligning with many previous studies, it identified 19 relatively high STEM performing rural schools, showing that rural schools can succeed in STEM education. Phase Two showed that, at the four rural schools which were the subjects of case study, this STEM success was associated with a bundles of practices, rather than any particular program or intervention. These practice bundles were facilitated by each school’s location and strong relationships within and beyond the schools. Some of the practices contributing to STEM success aligned with those promoted by STEM literature and policy, including those that develop student STEM engagement, facilitate STEM learning throughout schooling, and build the capacity of STEM teachers. Other practices found to contribute to rural school success are far less prominent in STEM education literature, including place-based learning, differentiated instruction, and maintaining high expectations for STEM learning with support. Finally, some conspicuous STEM education themes in the literature were almost absent from the participant accounts of school STEM success in this research, including the integration of STEM disciplines, the use of inquiry learning, the use of digital technologies, STEM education delivered through school partnerships with industry or community organisations, and directly addressing equity issues in STEM.
These findings suggest that rural schools can best facilitate STEM education by capitalising upon their local environment and resources to deliver STEM learning experiences that are hands-on, real-world, and connected to their students’ lives. Rural schools can also use the strong relationships that typically exist within and beyond these small, community-based schools to set high expectations, and effectively support all students to meet these expectations. They should adopt creative approaches, including unconventional timetabling, to ensuring a diversity of STEM pathways are maintained for their students. Finally, to achieve all this, rural schools must build autonomous teams of STEM teachers who drive their own professional learning to best meet the needs of their students.
The findings of this study suggest a misalignment between recommendations in Australian STEM strategies, and practices that can contribute to STEM education success in rural schools, challenging policy makers to more carefully consider the practices best suited to rural schools’ contexts, opportunities, and constraints. These findings also have implications for educational researchers. Rural STEM education has received limited research attention, hence, this study makes a contribution to building the evidence base regarding effective STEM education practice in rural schools. This study also identifies three under-researched practices capable of contributing to the rural schools’ STEM success – high expectations with support, differentiated instruction, and place-based learning. Further, the study offers proof of concept of a mechanism for expanding our understanding of effective STEM education in particular contexts such as rural schools, through seeking out school success in these contexts and then investigating the practices that have led to this success.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Danaia, Lena, Principal Supervisor
  • MacDonald, Amy, Co-Supervisor
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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