CHARLESTON — About 35 years ago, when Toni Burch was graduating from college, she couldn’t find a good computer engineering job in West Virginia. So she packed up her bags and moved out of state, like so many of her classmates.
She moved to Boston, but she’s back now and teaching at Ravenswood High School. She came back with her family in hopes of inspiring young people to explore careers in the technology field, and hopefully convince them to stay and work in the state and build up its future workforce.
A new grant from the Education Alliance of Charleston might just be the catalyst she’s been searching for. The alliance recently announced that it is investing $1.2 million to develop blended learning programs at seven rural high schools across the state.
As a part of the investment, schools will receive a $15,000 grant to help start or improve a makerspace, a place for students to get hands-on learning with new technology. Schools can also receive a VISTA volunteer paid for through the program for up to three years to help coordinate the makerspace and develop curriculum.
Education Alliance President Amelia Courts said the goal of the program is get to more students engaged with science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses and to improves students’ performance in those areas.
The following schools were chosen to participate in the initiative: Doddridge County High School, Ravenswood High School, Lincoln County High School, Logan County High School, Mann High School, Ritchie County High School and Tug Valley High School.
Courts said the blended part of the program means that teachers will use blend of traditional face-to-face classroom experience and a partially online component.
“The research actually shows that blended, especially for adolescents, is a more effective approach than a 100 percent online approach,” Courts said. “You really enable the teacher to do what she does best, which is to create those learning opportunities for students.”
For example, a teacher might embed multimedia presentations or videos in the online component of the course, and then use class time to engage in a deep discussion about the topic and answer students’ questions.
The Education Alliance is partnering with a third-party group to help measure the program’s success and how students have grown throughout the three years of its implementation.
“Part of the funding goes to support the actual training that has to occur for teachers, and also for the time that they’re investing to develop these courses,” Courts said. “Now, most of that time will occur outside of their original contract, and so we’re actually paying the teachers that are involved to do the extra work to develop the makerspace and develop the courses.”
About half of the $1.2 million investment will go toward paying for the VISTA volunteer, according to Emily Pratt, a spokeswoman for the alliance. Pratt explained that the idea is for the volunteers to build a school’s capacity to continue with the blended learning and the makerspaces, even when the three years are over.
“Schools often say that they’re already running on all of their cylinders doing as much as they can, so taking on a new project is sometimes challenging, even if they’re excited about it,” Courts said. “This gives them that human resource to really add value to the project.”
Before the alliance’s program was announced, Burch said she tried to start a makerspace at Ravenswood High School because she thought there were too many students who never got a chance to interact with new technology or explore different career options.
“I’ll be the first to admit, we really didn’t know what we were doing,” Burch said. “We really didn’t have any resources, financially — we had stuff that people donated to us.”
Burch said the school’s makerspace was mostly just a time to play. Students who were interested could come into the space during their lunch period and play with the materials.
Before Burch was a teacher, she was a software engineer. She hopes the program — even if only in a small way — exposes students to possible careers in the STEM fields and inspires them to pursue a degree in college.
If it were up to her, the school’s blended learning program and the makerspace would center on computer coding and robotics. But because not every teacher at the school has experience with that, she said the program will allow teachers from multiple disciplines to incorporate the hands-on learning into their structured curriculum.
In essence, teachers will create learning modules for an online learning system that can be shared across the school. Pratt hopes that, ultimately, those resources can be shared across the county and across the state.
“If we can keep growing this and keep increasing their exposure and making it not so scary — they’re all so scared it it,” Burch said. “It seems so foreign to them because nobody does it around here, but it’s a possibility. It’s real. They can do this.”