Susan Gilley’s education career has centered around helping teachers understand and integrate technology into the classroom.
But in the 2,850-student Harrison school district, just north of the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas, remote learning isn’t just about virtual instruction; it’s about bringing hands-on learning to students in person when they can’t get to campus.
For many of those students, the district’s GOBSmobile, a decommissioned school bus that’s been transformed into a one-stop mobile library, science lab, and digital classroom, was exactly what they needed to stay on top of their studies and connected to their schools, teachers, and peers during the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The modern-day bookmobile, painted yellow and blue and outfitted with a STEM lab, reading nook for students, and a classroom for teachers, first hit the road in April 2021 and has served 2,700 students across the district’s 200 miles in its first year.
From Walmart parking lots and youth centers to local schools, the GOBSmobile—named after the district’s goblin mascot and short for “Greater Opportunities for Better Success”—provided book loans; science experiments and demonstrations; storytime for younger students; and reading materials and supports for secondary students’ Advanced Placement courses.
If students couldn’t come to school, Gilley, the district’s executive director of federal programs and instructional technology and the GOBSmobile creator, was determined to bring the lessons to them, in their communities.
- It’s Not What You Know; It’s What You Share: Reach out to all departments in your district, not just academic departments, to find creative ways to solve problems.
- Use What You Have: Many districts already have the elements they need to build their own mobile labs and other big-ticket projects that seem too expensive at first. Before retiring equipment, from buses to laptops, think about how they can be used in new ways.
- Technology Isn’t Just for Tech’s Sake: Ensure your district’s technology integration plan builds on, rather than distracts from, hands-on learning. It is equally important to train teachers in how to use new tech tools in creative ways as it is to buy new devices or software in the first place.
“Mobile technology integration impacts students by reaching them where they are,” Gilley said.
It shows families that “the district realizes the impact of the digital divide,” she said. “Families can’t always travel to you, and [the] district needs to continually find ways to think outside of the box to help all learners and their families.”
Gilley, a 25-year education veteran, started as a business teacher but served as a technology coordinator in the St. Joe and Bergman school districts in Arkansas before moving to the same position in Harrison in 2011.
She has a do-it-yourself approach to solving education problems: Bring everyone together and use everything you’ve got.
On paper, the district, about 140 miles north of Little Rock, was in a better position than many of its rural counterparts when COVID-19 first shuttered schools in spring 2020. Eighty-five percent of families in Boone County, where Harrison is located, have access to broadband internet, and the district had already provided K-12 students with laptops and preschool students with touch pads.
In practice, however, students, just over half of whom come from low-income families, often had spotty internet connections.
Gilley and other educators worried that students would disengage without access to more hands-on learning, particularly in science, math, and reading.
The GOBSmobile emerged to make sure that didn’t happen.
“We were way far ahead of the game as far as 1-to-1 technology, which really helped us when COVID hit,” said Jay Parker, the principal of Harrison High School. “And a lot of that is due to Susan Gilley. She’s instrumental in seeing a vision, getting feedback, and then doing whatever it takes to overcome the obstacles that make most people give up and say, ‘Well, we can’t do that because of this.’ She finds a way.”
Families can't always travel to you, and [the] district needs to continually find ways to think outside of the box to help all learners and their families.
Gilley, 59, had picked up on the bookmobile idea years before the pandemic, while attending a technology conference. But with standard bookmobiles averaging $200,000 for a new one, it seemed out of reach for the district. The widespread school disruptions at the start of the pandemic provided both the impetus to get a mobile classroom up and running and the manpower to put one together in-house.
She worked with Travis Graham, the district’s operations director, and the transportation department to retrofit a 2000-era school bus with a worn-out interior but working engine and frame.
Transportation workers, who were sidelined during the school closures, went back to work, ripping out the old seating and hardware. They scavenged shelves and materials from an abandoned junior high school, while Gilley worked with librarians to collect leftover books from elementary school libraries that had been updated. Local graphic design and welding businesses gave the bus’s interior a fresh coat of paint and a grill decorated with an open book on the exterior.
“Even as we planned, we just kept putting more stuff in it,” Gilley said. “I was like, I want this to be more than just books. I want students to be able to do everything on it.”
Gilley ensured the bookmobile was welcoming to students. A countertop spans the entire length, and it has separate work areas for science experiments, math puzzles, and art kits; six tablets loaded with Osmo coding games; and three laptops with an attached 50-inch flat-screen television that teachers can use to project lessons from a computer.
The other side has bright blue bookshelves, comfy pullout cushions for reading, and storage for free meals the district delivers to students during summer months. The bus also operates as a mobile hot spot for families with no or unreliable internet access, with Wi-Fi extending about 300 feet.
“Kids love the technology—the Osmo’s apps, the Chromebooks—but we also have a lot that’s not technology, like marble mazes and magnet building kits, the electric snap circuits, which are a big hit,” said Tracie Thomas, Harrison’s only high school librarian, who also doubles as a STEM teacher on the GOBSmobile two days a week.
“I think sometimes kids have access to [smart] phones and iPads, but to actually get them away from that and building and exploring stuff on their own—that is something they really enjoy and isn’t something they have access to at home.”
A creative, cost-effective solution
All told, the bus cost about $57,500 to build and operate this year, including $10,000 to staff it with a driver, a librarian, and a paraeducator.
The district also received a $20,000 state grant for take-home books and science-, math-, and literacy-project packs for students.
“I think this has been a ‘COVID lining’ in the pandemic,” Gilley said. “I want [leaders] to realize that it doesn’t really cost that much money to get something like this done because most districts probably do have a bus that they could use for this purpose.”
Charles Hodges, an instructional-technology professor at Georgia Southern University, who studies rural STEM education, said the mobile STEM and computer lab is an “evolution of the traditional bookmobile” that could boost students’ science and engineering engagement in rural areas.
“That’s a pretty good, creative solution because families in rural areas don’t always have the best internet access—or any internet access at all,” Hodges said.
Access to science opportunities can vary widely from school to school in districts spread out over hundreds of square miles, he noted, “so if funding for some of those cool technologies—like Osmo and little robots and things like that—if they don’t have enough to sprinkle them out across the county, then putting it in a mobile lab where they can drive it around and everybody can have some access to it, that’s a pretty creative solution.”
The remote learning projects, along with STEM and literacy lessons, have helped students weather the academic disruption and blunt learning loss over the summer and during remote instruction, Thomas said.
Gilley is building on the progress she made during the pandemic and plans to expand services to reach more students. High school students are learning to program robots and other science and engineering activities during school visits from the bus this semester. They will later serve as mentors for STEM activities to elementary school students.
With the bus’s classroom and Wi-Fi features up and running, Gilley has started working on plans to add solar panels to the roof and a side awning to create shade for outdoor classrooms. The district intends to expand summer activities to include wellness workshops, with free dental and hygiene supplies. It’s also using federal COVID-relief money to add Wi-Fi to all school buses, to create a fleet of mobile hot spots.
A student-focused problem solver
Gilley’s portfolio expanded during the pandemic to include directing federal programs, writing grants, developing teacher training, and even monitoring the district’s COVID-19 infection rates.
Her ability to wear many hats has earned the trust of staff members, who come to her with thorny problems, according to Thomas, the librarian.
“She actually does about four people’s worth of jobs … and she is so kind and nice and easy to work with,” Thomas said. “I think those kinds of leaders are your best, because you’re not intimidated or scared to go to them and you can learn so much from people like that.”
That was the case when Parker, the principal of Harrison High School, wanted to help graduating seniors who couldn’t afford to buy laptops as they headed off to college.
He approached Gilley for help, and she came up with a workable solution for students.
The district replaces its 1-to-1 devices on a four-year cycle, so Gilley offered seniors the option to buy their school-issued laptops for $5, close to their fair market price. After all the seniors have the opportunity to buy a laptop, the remaining laptops are offered to the community for $10 each, with the proceeds going to cover the cost of devices for homeless students, who are able to keep their laptops for free.
The program has eased the digital divide—and angst—for graduates, Parker said.
“People say they make their decisions on what is best for kids, but then don’t always follow through with that being the continuous measuring stick,” Gilley said. “I am proud to say I feel more and more I am able to let that factor be the biggest part of any rubric for any implementation decision.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as A DIY Approach to Boost STEM Engagement In Rural Schools