Throughout the United States, educational leaders and policy makers aspire to support students to develop twenty-first century skills that will adequately prepare them for college and career opportunities (NGSS Lead States 2013). As noted in the NGSS (NGSS Lead States 2013), all students, regardless of career interests and pathways, will require a strong K-12 science education to achieve desired workforce competencies and to be successful in a globally competitive economy (Bybee and Fuchs 2006). To achieve this goal, teachers and students are encouraged to utilize technology to enhance learning outcomes (Blanchard et al. 2016). For over a decade, United States schools have increased technology usage in an effort to drive innovation. Technology-integrated instruction can transform contemporary classrooms (Sundeen and Sundeen 2013) to promote student motivation, engagement, and achievement by providing new methods of learning, promoting independence, and enlarging the student’s world (Howley et al. 2011). Many factors determine the success of technology-integrated instruction, including school resources, administrator support, teacher attitudes toward technology-integrated curriculum, adequacy of technology, student perception and use of technology, and school (Howley et al. 2011).
When digital fabrication technologies such as three-dimensional (3D) printers, laser cutters, easy-to-use design software, and desktop machine tools are integrated into schools, they can stimulate creativity and innovation (Bull et al., 2017; Beyers 2010) to move students towards science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers (Smith 2013). Makerspaces can be found in many schools (Bull et al. 2017), allowing students to design and build almost any tangible object (Lipson and Kurman 2013). To incorporate tools and technologies, teachers may adopt a project-based instructional approach that allows students to investigate real world problems, effectively transforming classrooms into engaging student-centered learning environments (Krajcik et al. 1994). Project-based instruction is grounded in constructivism theory (Krajcik et al. 1994), and emphasizes the meaning-making capacity of the mind as new knowledge is created (Li and Huan 2017).
While many schools in the United States have already integrated technology into classroom learning (Howley et al. 2011), this learning opportunity is not available to the same extent in all districts or schools. In comparison to urban and suburban neighborhoods, schools in rural communities more often lack the technology access to serve large numbers of underrepresented students (Sundeen and Sundeen 2013; Blanchard et al. 2016; Goodpaster et al. 2009). Inadequate funding and budgetary concerns may deter technology acquisition in rural schools, leaving students without regular access to basic tools such as computers or eliminating student opportunities to experience advanced technologies such as 3D printers (Sundeen and Sundeen 2013, p. 8).
Teachers play significant roles in the effective implementation of students’ technology-enhanced learning. As teachers communicate clear objectives, pedagogical strategies, and content knowledge in their interactions with students (Tamim et al. 2011), classroom practices can be improved and transformed (Blanchard et al. 2016). Because of limited professional development opportunities, teachers often lack the skills to integrate technologies into classroom instruction (Gerard et al. 2011), a problem found more often in rural area districts/schools. Consequently, these teachers may not know how to use digital technologies to support the curriculum (Smith 2013/14).
Since technology-integrated instruction can help to address learning needs and better prepare students for future twenty-first century career opportunities, K-12 technology-enhanced learning must be explored. Closer examination is needed in order to gain a deeper understanding of practices that can support teachers’ use of technology to improve student learning. The purpose of this study is to determine changes in student learning, as well as teacher integration of classroom technology, in rural middle schools after obtaining and implementing the new technology.
This paper examines rural middle school technology usage through a constructivist lens. Based on the works of Piaget (1971) and Vygotsky (1978), the constructivist learning theory advocates for authentic learning contexts based on real-life situations (Schunk 2000). Constructivists emphasize self-awareness and responsibility in learning (Hirumi 2002), and highlight the social construction of knowledge (Jaramillo 1996). Through project-based learning (Krajcik et al. 1994), learners assimilate their experiences with prior knowledge and new ideas to deepen understanding, internalize meaning (Űltanir 2012), think critically and reflectively (Nanjappa and Grant 2003), and make sense of the environment (Yager 1991). This paper encapsulates constructivist theory and project based learning by examining critical inventions in history such as the solenoid unit, determining applications for the invention and suggesting possible methods for improvements and future utilization of the invention.
An underlying tenet of constructivism is that learning is shaped by culturally related tools that help us better understand our world (Duffy and Cunningham 1996). In light of this precept, technology has been seen as a cognitive tool that can enrich the learning environment and support new understanding (Nanjappa and Grant 2003), extending the thinking process by requiring learners to think more critically about the subject matter (Jonassen 1994). Cognitive technology tools may support memory (camera, notepad, notifications and reminders), integration and synthesis (designing a wiki, website, or Powerpoint), organization (databases, interactive graphic organizers), or other cognitive skills. Adopting a constructivist viewpoint may support the rationale for integrating technology in American middle schools.
Differences in technology integration in rural, urban, and suburban middle schools
School districts across the country are increasing students’ access to digital devices, and most American schools have some computer technologies (Howley et al. 2011). However, the development of twenty-first century skills requires more than just access to technological devices: the school district’s economic base must be strong enough to provide sufficient bandwidth, hire technology specialists, support professional development, and maintain equipment (Gutierrez 2016).
Since public school funding is based upon school enrollment, smaller districts generally receive less funds than larger districts (Gutierrez 2016). Rural schools often have smaller student populations than urban and suburban districts, but tend to be more widespread geographically. Many students in rural communities travel longer distances to the physical facilities, and a larger portion of funds must go towards transporting students to and from school, leaving less funding for instructional purposes (Gutierrez 2016). Building technical infrastructure that is fast enough to support the Internet in remote areas can be an expensive process that may be prohibitive in remote areas. Wheeler (2014) found that 41% of rural schools, as compared with 31% of urban schools, lack enough bandwidth to support connectivity.
When Lu and Overbaugh (2009) examined differences in rural, urban, and suburban school teachers’ perceptions of technology integration, they found that suburban schools had the highest level of technological support. Rural and suburban schools differed significantly in ability to access hardware and software, in technical support staff, and in average time to solve technical problems. Urban and suburban schools differed in access to technology integration professionals, time to solve technical problems, and in technology education opportunities. Although rural and urban schools showed comparable results, rural schools were more limited in their access to technology resources.
Issues with implementation of new Technology in Schools
School principals now have to assume the role of technology leaders. Schools that are successful in technology-enhanced learning are often guided by detailed plans based on philosophies and goals to be achieved (Baylor and Ritchie 2002). These plans are more widely used in urban school districts (Flanagan and Jacobsen 2003). Leadership ability, along with the vision to drive culture change, is critical for a successful technology enhanced learning environment (Baylor and Ritchie 2002). Principals’ belief in technology-integrated teaching and learning, involvement in technology training sessions, and recognizing and rewarding teachers’ endeavors to incorporate technology into classroom learning, are key factors that contribute to success (Maurer and Davidson 1998).
Furthermore, school principals help to cultivate credibility and respect by modeling technology usage (Baylor and Ritchie 2002). However, like teachers (Gerard et al. 2011), administrators are often not prepared for their role as technology leaders and often lack the “pedagogical vision and experience to guide teachers” (Flanagan and Jacobsen 2003, p. 128). Too often the limited resources are spent on acquiring equipment, with little or no emphasis on organizational culture change or technical support (Flanagan and Jacobsen 2003).
According to a 2015 survey, approximately 90% of teachers see technology as an essential part of education (Roland 2015). However, 60% of teachers feel that they need more technology training, and 37% claim that they do not know how to implement technology in the classroom (Roland 2015). Preparing teachers to use technology in the classroom requires more than just familiarity with the technology; teachers must learn how to best implement the technology to help students develop relevant skills (Lambert and Gong 2010).
In measuring preservice teachers’ technology literacy skills, Dinçer (2018) found that even those who scored themselves as highly “technology literate” were lacking in technology knowledge and skills. Dincer concluded that teacher training should not only include technology literacy courses, but must also integrate teaching activities with the technology. Design technology based on digital fabrication can support teachers in using technology to introduce engineering and math concepts (Berry et al. 2010).
Teacher technology skills in rural districts
Classroom technology integration is often related to teachers’ technological skills and confidence. However, in rural settings, limited funding and the community’s remote location may interfere with the availability of technological resources (Bjerede 2018). In 2016, 39% of rural Americans lacked Broadband access (Federal Communications Commission, 2016), and many could not afford to install the expensive Internet infrastructure in their isolated communities (Thacker 2017). In addition, inadequate training opportunities may impact the teacher’s motivation to strengthen personal technology skills (Lu and Overbaugh 2009; Howley et al. 2011). Rural districts may not have the funds to hire technical specialists, and costs for maintaining equipment can be expensive. Even when training is provided, rural teachers may not attend. Teachers who chose not to attend professional development and infrequently used technology in the classroom resisted primarily due to difficulties with the technology, limited time and support, and/or the need to address “high stakes” testing (Howley et al. 2011). Rural communities may also avoid implementation of new and emerging technologies, possibly due to concerns that technology may change the “small town feel” (Bjerede 2018).
About one third of all United States schools are located in rural areas (Bjerede 2018), and the challenges are as varied as the schools themselves. Even in schools that are committed to the use of technology, technology may be used primarily to support traditional teaching practices (Rakes et al. 2006), limiting the innovative opportunities provided by technological resources. Whatever the setting, teacher skills and confidence in regard to technology are particularly important in rural schools (Larson and Murray 2008), and will be essential in supporting the development of twenty-first century skills.
Student readiness for technology-integrated learning
In a classroom with instructional technology capabilities, the interaction between students and teachers tends to be more rewarding (Flanagan and Jacobsen 2003). Students value resources and appreciate access to Internet-provided information (Li 2007). However, students who live in lower socio-economic areas may have limited access to computers and other technological devices at home (Flanagan and Jacobsen 2003).
In a study of middle school technologies and academic engagement (Spires et al. 2008), researchers held student focus groups to determine student perceptions of school technology usage. Many students expressed concern that access to technology at school was overly restrictive, and felt that teachers were somewhat disconnected with their technology needs. D’Souza and Wood (2004) reported that students sometimes demonstrate mistrust of software and prefer traditional approaches to learning, which may be linked to the lack of teacher preparation to use the technology (Gerard et al. 2011). Students voiced the need for more current and frequent use of technology in schools (Li 2007), and felt that the use of simulations, visual models, and graphic tools enhanced their learning. Many also mentioned that additional technology opportunities at school could help motivate classwork (Spires et al. 2008) and boost confidence levels (Li 2007), particularly if the technology supported interactive and other creative technology options. Overall, many students appreciate the ease and speed of obtaining accurate, up-to-date information. Students like the flexibility of navigating through information at their own pace, and appear to be enthusiastic toward technology-integrated learning (Li 2007).
Since the addition of 3D printers in middle and high schools, students are more motivated through projects that involve hands-on experience in STEM-focused areas, for example, robotics and basic electronics (Lacey 2010). Lacey defined 3D printing as “an additive manufacturing technology in which a three-dimensional object is formed by adding layers of material” (p. 17). Through the use of 3D printing, students learn contemporary product design and manufacturing processes that are used in industry. According to Ford and Minshall (2016), the adoption of 3D printing is still limited in some elementary and secondary schools. While the technology is becoming more prevalent, Moorefield-Lang (2014) commented on the importance of learning by trial and error and exercising patience.
The benefits of 3D printing for middle school students are numerous. Results from a study revealed that three-view diagrams and 3D printed solid models enhance the development of spatial abilities, such as mental rotation, spatial visualization (Huang and Lin 2017), and mathematical knowledge (Ford & Minshall, 2016). Students in a small rural school in Michigan experienced cross-cultural benefits from the use of 3D printing by improving oral communication skills through the opportunity to present the learning Schelly et al. (2015).
It is also important to provide training for teachers to ensure the effective utilization of new classroom technology to improve learning. Studies have focused on 3D technology training for teachers. Schelly et al. (2015) reported on the success of a 3-day workshop for teachers on open-source 3-D printing technologies and its potential role in the classroom. In teams, teachers were able to build and use 3-D printers during the workshop while gaining a greater recognition of the potentials of the technology to empower learning and transform education. In a study, Al-Mouh et al. (2016), reported the success of teacher workshop on new trends in computing technologies, including 3D printing. Teachers had the opportunity to apply what was learned and expressed overall satisfaction of the workshop.
Future career opportunities associated with 3D
Student understanding of current learning activities in relation to future career needs is critical for a successful career (Wood and Kaszubowski 2008). Students must recognize the importance of technology-enhanced learning as they prepare for future career opportunities to meet workforce demands (Li 2007; Spires et al. 2008). Technology instruction can promote students’ higher order thinking skills through improved cognitive functions, thinking processes, and intellectual capacities, enabling students to think more critically, become more creative problem solvers (Baylor and Ritchie 2002), and develop technology and communication skills. However, rural middle school students may experience lack of exposure to career options, including STEM careers (Wood and Kaszubowski 2008).
Many career opportunities, including engineering, architecture, construction Russell et al. (2014), manufacturing, art, education, and medicine (Murphy and Atala 2014) are linked to digital fabrication technologies. Science-related occupations often require 3D fabrication technologies. Because digital fabrication allows individuals to design and develop objects at any time, increasing access to these technologies will challenge conventional models of business and education (Gershenfeld 2012). In general, STEM education and careers can potentially be improved through the use of 3D printing technologies. The general shortage of skilled individuals for the workplace indicates that students must be empowered to become future digital innovators. The review of the literature suggests that an examination of practices that can support teachers’ use of technology to improve student learning is critical.