How do teachers introduce students to state-of-the-art science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) technologies if their schools don’t have the equipment? Tackling challenges like this, particularly in rural settings, often requires innovative solutions. You might say it requires thinking “outside the box.” The Upper Cumberland Rural STEM Initiative (UCRSI) decided, however, that the perfect solution was to re-envision what a “box” could do.

The UCRSI Hub, funded through the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network, is currently developing an incredible learning “box” called the STEMmobile, a mobile STEM learning studio that will provide a unique, on-site educational experience for rural school children in grades PK-8 across the region. This mobile classroom and laboratory will bring much-needed technology to the doorsteps of schools in its 21 partnering districts. When they step inside, students will have immediate access to state-of-the-art equipment to enable them to study STEM learning objectives set by teachers.

The STEMmobile will be constructed in a 53-foot tractor-trailer with self-contained power, its own HVAC system, a satellite uplink for internet connectivity, and adjustable-height workstations for 24 students. This classroom on wheels will be stocked with equipment from Tennessee Tech University’s Oakley STEM Center and will include iPads, hand-held data collection devices, and other special STEM instructional resources. The Oakley STEM Center also has a lending library of STEM instructional material that will be used to equip the STEMmobile, which will begin visiting schools in 2013.

Teachers at the UCRSI STEM Hub Schools who are members of the Oakley STEM Center Users Group will be able to reserve the unit for use at their school, and the moving lab will spend one week at a time at each location. Teachers will attend special professional development workshops in advance to learn to use this unique learning studio so they will be ready to make the most of the STEMmobile when it arrives.

But just getting the innovative “box” built and readied is not enough. Figuring out how to transport the STEMmobile not only provided another challenge for the UCRSI team, it also opened an opportunity to creatively partner with local industry leaders. Cookeville-based transportation and logistics company Averitt Express is assisting with industry contacts for the construction and outfitting of the STEMmobile and will provide a truck and driver to deliver the trailer from school to school. This in-kind gift will save UCRSI thousands in transportation costs each year. This kind of industry-education partnership proves that even businesses without an obvious direct link to STEM education can play a vital role in finding solutions to benefit students.