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  1. Abstract Background

    Calls to improve learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and particularly engineering, present significant challenges for school systems. Partnerships among engineering industry, universities, and school systems to support learning appear promising, but current work is limited in its conclusions because it lacks a strong connection to theoretical work in interorganizational collaboration.


    This study aims to reflect more critically on the process of how organizations build relationships to address the following research question: In a public–private partnership to integrate engineering into middle school science curriculum, how do stakeholder characterizations of the collaborative process align with existing frameworks of interorganizational collaboration?


    This qualitative, embedded multiple case study considered in‐depth pre‐ and post‐year interviews with teachers, administrators, industry, and university personnel during the first year of the Partnering with Educators and Engineers in Rural Schools (PEERS) program. Transcripts were analyzed using a framework of interorganizational collaboration operationalized for our context.


    Results provide insights into stakeholder perceptions of collaborative processes in the first year of the PEERS program across dimensions of collaboration. These dimensions mapped to three central discussion points with relevance for school–university–industry partnerships: school collaboration as an emergent and negotiated process, tension in collaborating across organizations, and fair share in collaborating toward a social goal.


    Taking a macro‐level look at the collaborative processes involved enabled us to develop implications for collaborative stakeholders to be intentional about designing for future success. By systematically applying a framework of collaboration and capitalizing on the rich situational findings possible through a qualitative approach, we shift our understanding of collaborative processes in school–university–industry partnerships for engineering education and contribute to the development of collaboration theory.

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  2. Calls from regional commissions and research in rural education have emphasized the importance of collaboration to build economic resilience, support communities, and provide students with access to resources for educational opportunities. This study took place in the context of a partnership in a rural, Appalachian region of Virginia focused on providing recurring hands-on activities for middle school students to explore engineering in classrooms with the support of local engineering industry professionals, university affiliates, and teachers. The purpose of this study is to describe how university affiliates explained collaboration using a process framework of collaboration defined around governance, administration, organizational autonomy, mutuality, and norms of trust and reciprocity. Utilizing a single case study methodology, five semi-structured interviews with university affiliates after the second year of partnership were analyzed using a qualitative thematic analysis approach primarily informed by deductive methods and guided by the theoretical framework. Findings from the analysis suggest that university affiliates understood that there are unequal benefits for participating in the partnership, meaning that some partners got more out of the partnership than they might have been able to contribute. Additionally, participants suggested that each partners’ roles and responsibilities were unclear at times, which could have been clarified and strengthened through building relationships and trust among partners. Finally, participants suggested that tensions were present between what teachers were asked to do in the partnership and what might have been required of them by their schools given school expectations around preparation and testing around standards of learning. This research leads to recommendations around building future partnerships and sustainability of partnerships keeping in mind the importance of relationship building and being responsive to the needs of each partner. Additionally, future research could examine specific partnership roles from lenses related to sensemaking and boundary spanning. 
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  3. The purpose of this research study is to understand teacher experiences throughout their second year of engagement in the Virginia Tech Partnering with Educators and Engineers in Rural Schools partnership. This partnership is an assets-based community partnership in a rural environment between middle school teachers, regional industry, and university affiliates that is focused on implementing recurrent, hands-on, culturally relevant engineering activities for middle school students. This qualitative study uses constant comparative methodology informed by grounded theory on teacher interviews to capture both teacher experiences in the partnership as well as teacher-identified assets in their classrooms and school communities. Using the sensitizing concepts of pedagogical content knowledge, self-efficacy, and the Interconnected Model of Teacher Growth, this study found that while teachers experienced the program differently depending on their contextual setting of their schools, all teachers expressed shifts in their recognition of and value placed on community assets. Findings also suggest that teachers greatly value involving industry and university partners in the classroom to highlight the applications of engineering in their communities and support a reimagination of engineering conceptions and careers for both students and teachers. Teachers reported that the hands-on, team-based, culturally relevant engineering activities engaged learners and showcased individual strengths in ways they otherwise do not see exhibited in their traditional curriculum. The partnership ultimately allowed teachers to identify how assets in schools’ rural communities, beyond those previously identified within their schools, could aid them in further developing and implementing engineering activities. With teachers serving as role models for students, it is important to support teachers’ reimagination of engineering conceptions and integration into the classroom to ultimately increase students’ engineering engagement. Our findings highlight the value of community-based approaches in supporting engineering integration in the classroom and describe the assets that teachers note as being the most significant in their community. 
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  4. Despite limited success in broadening participation in engineering with rural and Appalachian youth, there remain challenges such as misunderstandings around engineering careers, misalignments with youth’s sociocultural background, and other environmental barriers. In addition, middle school science teachers may be unfamiliar with engineering or how to integrate engineering concepts into science lessons. Furthermore, teachers interested in incorporating engineering into their curriculum may not have the time or resources to do so. The result may be single interventions such as a professional development workshop for teachers or a career day for students. However, those are unlikely to cause major change or sustained interest development. To address these challenges, we have undertaken our NSF ITEST project titled, Virginia Tech Partnering with Educators and Engineers in Rural Schools (VT PEERS). Through this project, we sought to improve youth awareness of and preparation for engineering related careers and educational pathways. Utilizing regular engagement in engineering-aligned classroom activities and culturally relevant programming, we sought to spark an interest with some students. In addition, our project involves a partnership with teachers, school districts, and local industry to provide a holistic and, hopefully, sustainable influence. By engaging over time we aspired to promote sustainability beyond this NSF project via increased teacher confidence with engineering related activities, continued integration within their science curriculum, and continued relationships with local industry. From the 2017-2020 school years the project has been in seven schools across three rural counties. Each year a grade level was added; that is, the teachers and students from the first year remained for all three years. Year 1 included eight 6th grade science teachers, year 2 added eight 7th grade science teachers, and year 3 added three 8th grade science teachers and a career and technology teacher. The number of students increased from over 500 students in year 1 to over 2500 in year 3. Our three industry partners have remained active throughout the project. During the third and final year in the classrooms, we focused on the sustainable aspects of the project. In particular, on how the intervention support has evolved each year based on data, support requests from the school divisions, and in scaffolding “ownership” of the engineering activities. Qualitative data were used to support our understanding of teachers’ confidence to incorporate engineering into their lessons plans and how their confidence changed over time. Noteworthy, our student data analysis resulted in an instrument change for the third year; however due to COVID, pre and post data was limited to schools who taught on a semester basis. Throughout the project we have utilized the ITEST STEM Workforce Education Helix model to support a pragmatic approach of our research informing our practice to enable an “iterative relationship between STEM content development and STEM career development activities… within the cultural context of schools, with teachers supported by professional development, and through programs supported by effective partnerships.” For example, over the course of the project, scaffolding from the University leading interventions to teachers leading interventions occurred. 
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  5. Middle school is a pivotal time for career choice, and research is rich with studies on how students perceive engineering, as well as corresponding intervention strategies to introduce younger students to engineering and inform their conceptions of engineering. Unfortunately, such interventions are typically not designed in culturally relevant ways. Consequently, there continues to be a lack of students entering engineering and a low level of diverse candidates for this profession. The purpose of this study was to explore how students in rural and Appalachian Virginia conceive of engineering before and after engagement with culturally relevant hands-on activities in the classroom. We used student responses to the Draw an Engineer Test (DAET), consisting of a drawing and several open-ended prompts administered before and after the set of engagements, to answer our research questions related to changes in students’ conceptions of engineering. We used this study to develop recommendations for teachers for the use of such engineering engagement practices and how to best assess their outcomes, including looking at the practicality of the DAET. Overall, we found evidence that our classroom engagements positively influenced students’ conceptions of engineering in these settings. 
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  6. null (Ed.)
    Helping middle school students explore potential career opportunities based on local culture and values was the foundation of a study of rural Appalachian middle school students conducted at a major university in the United States. Specifically we focused on positively impacting locally and culturally-relevant conceptions of engineering through participation in multiple classroom activities developed through a partnership of teachers, researchers, and local industry partners. To date, the study has revealed a positive change in the understanding and conception of the field of engineering by students who participated in the culturally relevant classroom activities. As a basis for this work, ample literature was found to describe middle school students’ conceptions of engineering but there was limited available research on the value of relating the field of engineering to a student’s local culture. We are offering a resource exchange session to introduce the approach of designing and using classroom engineering exploration activities directly connected to the students’ local environment, featuring the types of engineering work performed in the area and local problems related to engineering. Effective practices for working with industry partners to help design and deliver the classroom activities will also be shared. An example of a classroom intervention will be featured where students explored potential and kinetic energy by designing and building mountain roads out of simple hardware store materials. This activity allowed students to make connections between the roads they built in the classroom and the geography of their local mountainous, rural area. Industry partners participated in this intervention by offering insights from their technical backgrounds and company practices and assisted with the hands-on lessons in the classroom. This was one of six culturally relevant engineering activities provided to 757 sixth-grade students at seven Appalachian middle schools. 
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  7. null (Ed.)
    K-12 teachers serve a critical role in their students’ development of interest in engineering, especially as engineering content is emphasized in curriculum standards. However, teachers may not be comfortable teaching engineering in their classrooms as it can require a different set of skills from which they are trained. Professional development activities focused on engineering content can help teachers feel more comfortable teaching the subject in their classrooms and can increase their knowledge of engineering and thus their engineering teaching self-efficacy. There are many different types of professional development activities teachers might experience, each one with a set of established best practices. VT PEERS (Virginia Tech Partnering with Educators and Engineers in Rural Communities) is a program designed to provide recurrent hands-on engineering activities to middle school students in or near rural Appalachia. The project partners middle school teachers, university affiliates, and local industry partners throughout the state region to develop and implement engineering activities that align with state defined standards of learning (SOLs). Throughout this partnership, teachers co-facilitate engineering activities in their classrooms throughout the year with the other partners, and teachers have the opportunity to participate in a two-day collaborative workshop every year. VT PEERS held a workshop during the summer of 2019, after the second year of the partnership, to discuss the successes and challenges experienced throughout the program. Three focus groups, one for each grade level involved (grades 6-8), were held during the summit for teachers and industry partners to discuss their experiences. None of the teachers involved in the partnership have formal training in engineering. The transcripts of these focus groups were the focus of the exploratory qualitative data analyses to answer the following research question: How do middle-school teachers develop teaching engineering self-efficacy through professional development activities? Deductive coding of the focus group transcripts was completed using the four sources of self-efficacy: mastery experience, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and physiological states. The analysis revealed that vicarious experiences can be particularly valuable to increasing teachers’ teaching engineering self-efficacy. For example, teachers valued the ability to play the role of a student in an engineering lesson and being able to share ideas about teaching engineering lessons with other teachers. This information can be useful to develop engineering-focused professional development activities for teachers. Additionally, as teachers gather information from their teaching engineering vicarious experiences, they can inform their own teaching practices and practice reflective teaching as they teach lessons. 
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  8. Barriers to broadening participation in engineering to rural and Appalachian youth include misalignment with family and community values, lack of opportunities, and community misperceptions of engineering. While single interventions are unlikely to stimulate change in these areas, more sustainable interventions that are co-designed with local relevance appear promising. Through our NSF ITEST project, we test the waters of this intervention model through partnership with school systems and engineering industry to implement a series of engineering-themed, standards-aligned lessons for the middle school science classroom. Our mixed methods approach includes collection of interview and survey data from administrators, teachers, engineers, and university affiliates as well as observation and student data from the classroom. We have utilized theory from learning science and organizational collaboration to structure and inform our analysis and explore the impact of our project. The research is guided by the following questions: RQ 1: How do participants conceptualize engineering careers? How and why do such perceptions shift throughout the project? RQ 2: What elements of the targeted intervention affect student motivation towards engineering careers specifically with regard to developing competencies and ability beliefs regarding engineering? RQ 3: How can strategic collaboration between K12 and industry promote a shift in teacher’s conceptions of engineers and increased self-efficacy in building and delivering engineering curriculum? RQ 4: How do stakeholder characteristics, perceptions, and dynamics affect the likelihood of sustainability in strategic collaborations between K12 and industry stakeholders? How do prevailing institutional and collaborative conditions mediate sustainability? In year one, we involved nine 6th grade teachers, three engineering companies, and over 500 students. In year two, we expanded to include 7th grade teachers in our partner schools and the new students moving up to 6th grade. Lessons aligned with students' everyday experiences and connected to industry. For example, students created bouncy balls and tested their effectiveness on materials produced from partner manufacturing facilities. From preliminary analysis of data collected in the first two years of the project (e.g, the Draw an Engineer Test and teacher interviews), we have begun to see evidence of positive student and teacher impact. Additionally, our application of collaborative theory to the investigation of stakeholder perceptions of the project has revealed implications for partnering with school systems and engineering industry. For example, key individuals at each organization may serve as important conduits for program communication and collaborative work. 
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  9. This work in progress paper in the research to practice category identifies trends in how middle school youth from rural schools conceptualize failure after engaging in engineering-related learning activities. These trends inform better strategies that can be used in the PEERS, Partnering with Educators and Engineers in Rural Schools, program to ensure the goals of the program are met. The PEERS program moves beyond single exposure activities by engaging students in approximately six engineering-related learning activities throughout the year. This program partners researchers, teachers and local industry representatives aiming to (1) challenge misperceptions and create relevant conceptions of engineering; (2) maintain and expand situational interest; and, (3) integrate with individual interests, values, and social identities. Since failure is an integral part of the learning experience, students' conceptions of failure can influence the way students interact in these activities and the outcomes they experience from this program. Interviews were conducted with 38 students across the three rural communities involved in the PEERS program on their perceptions of failure. This paper presents two themes that emerged from initial coding of the interviews and explains how these themes will be used to inform future decisions for PEERS. 
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