Rural Science Education Research and the Frameworks That Give It Form
Oliver, J. Steve, Rural Educator
Research in science education has evolved rapidly over the past ten to twelve years due to the growth of two components of most published research. Though it might be argued that they are not really new, these two components are today necessarily explicit whereas they were more implicit in the past. As a doctoral student and young researcher in the mid 1980s, I did not declare anything about my perspective on research or knowing other than the fact that a ? value of less than or equal to 0.05 was required for my findings to be significant. But the doctoral students and young researchers of today are not able to get away with this. This is true for good reason. As research has become increasingly qualitative and constructivist, the idea that describing precisely the theoretical base from which our work grows has taken on much greater significance, thus we have had the term "theoretical framework" incorporated into the lexicon of educational research. Likewise, if we are conducting research for which our primary data sources are interviews and observations, it becomes necessary to describe how we will know when we have found a result that has meaning or perhaps importance. And the "how do we know" questions fall under the heading of epistemological framework. Thus we have a partner for the theoretical framework: the epistemological framework.
Do these two frameworks have any special significance for rural education research? Yes, I believe that they do. Recently I published a chapter in the Handbook of Research in Science Education under the title "Rural Science Education" (Oliver, 2007).
Like so many people who have written about rural research in the recent past, I again struggled with the definition of what is and what is not rural. I again looked at the definitions that have been used to identify a rural school. And like so many researchers in the past, I concluded that we can know rural schools when we enter them, but it is not always easy to create a description of them that can be widely applied.
The typical definitions of rural schools or rural places involve demographic characteristics or distances from cities. For instance, the U.S. Census Bureau defined rural as 'a residential category of places outside urbanized areas in open country, or in communities with less than 2,500 inhabitants, or where the populations density is less than 1,000 inhabitants per square mile' (Stern, 1994 cited in Horn, 1995). Other authors have used factors such as "isolation" as a measure (Sampson-Cordle, 2001). But isolation is a state of being that is increasingly difficulty to attain. Cell phones and satellite TV make almost everyone within range of everyone else. For some groups, isolation has to be self imposed. For instance, in a recent issue of The Atlantic, Hirschorn (2007) described an episode of the ABC TV show "Wife Swap" in which a Pentecostal couple swap partners with a family in which the husband "has turned from God to follow his rock-and-roll dreams." And as Hirschorn reported, the show takes quite seriously the "rejection of contemporary culture" by the Pentecostal family although they have apparently not rejected it enough to not be part of a reality TV program. In the same way, Crockett's (1999) study of science education in an Amish Mennonite community demonstrated how a group can impose a choice to live in a rural area without television, radio and other sources of modern culture while maximizing the use of computers and high technology (such as using artificial insemination for breeding of cattle) when it is economically expedient to do so in the business side of their lives.
Horn (1995) described the problem of identifying rural schools in this way; "The simple fact is that rural people, rural communities and rural conditions are so diverse that one can find evidence to support nearly any characterization" (p. 3). Rural schools and rural communities are in some cases identifiable because of their distance from a city, population density, apparent isolation, availability of resources, homogeneity of population, and similar characteristics, but in some cases they are not. …