Skip to main content

Breaking the code in Appalachia: WVU researchers hope to improve identification of gifted students through STEM

photo of child with headphones, adult in background

A student participates in a coding event at the WVU campus. Carla Brigandi, assistant professor at the WVU College of Education and Human Services, is leading Project Appalachian Coders, which will promote STEM in rural West Virginia. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

Download full-size

Only 1.8 percent of West Virginia public school students are identified “gifted,” or having intellectual abilities higher than average. That’s well below the national average of 6 percent, according to the National Association for Gifted Children. 

But Carla Brigandi, assistant professor at West Virginia University’s College of Education and Human Services, believes that West Virginia’s number is not representative of the talent in our local communities. The real issue is that students with gifts and talents aren’t being identified as such. 

“What I really want to find out is what’s happening in our rural communities, why students with high academic ability are disproportionately unidentified, and subsequently denied state mandated services,” Brigandi said. “That number is ridiculously low. Even 5 percent would be too low.”

In Monongalia County, for instance, about 6.5 percent of students are identified as gifted but “when you go out into rural communities, there might be two kids out of 700 identified as gifted,” added Brigandi, who taught middle and secondary school mathematics and gifted education for 15 years. 

Brigandi hopes to find answers in a new U.S. Department of Education-funded project in which she and her colleagues will promote STEM in a rural West Virginia county. She was awarded a five-year, $630,000 grant from the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program for “Project Appalachian Coders.”

Joining her on the research are Nancy Spillane, clinical associate professor with WVUTeach, and Karen Rambo-Hernandez, former WVU faculty member now at Texas A&M. 

The project has three main components: Increase identification of students with gifts and talents and boost services for them; promote STEM, with an emphasis on computer science; and support effective instruction in schools in rural and high-poverty areas. 

“This is almost the perfect grant for West Virginia,” Brigandi said. “This not only looks at increasing the identification of students with high academic abilities but also looks at whole school improvement, in the areas of computer science and computational thinking.”

High achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds, when compared to their more advantaged peers, are twice as likely to drop out of school; more likely to lose ground as they move forward in their schooling; and less likely to attend or graduate from college, according to existing research. 

“This is harmful for individual students, who are denied the opportunity to develop their talents, and harmful to society, which fails to reap the benefits of those talents,” Brigandi said. 

Although federal law acknowledges that gifted students have needs that are traditionally unmet in a regular school setting, there are no specific mandates for serving those children. Gifted education is a local responsibility, and while West Virginia is one state that has provisions relating to gifted education, there’s room for improvement, Brigandi said. 

West Virginia uses statewide norms that require students to score in the 97th percentile rank or higher on an IQ test. But that mechanism may be more skewed in favor of children with educated parents and from a higher socioeconomic class, Brigandi said. 

She believes universal screening using local school-based norms, as well as increasing parent advocacy, would boost the number of low-income students with access to gifted services.

The researchers are hoping to develop those norms, based off of their experiences with Project Appalachian Coders. The project will be geared toward K-5 students. Teachers, students and parents will attend communal computer science events such as Hour of Code and an annual year-end Project Appalachian Coders enrichment fair.

Of the half of high school graduates interested in STEM careers, only 30 percent meet STEM college and career readiness benchmarks. Those numbers are even lower for students from low-income families at less than 10 percent. 

“This is a problem, as higher education institutions are charged with creating one million more STEM professionals over the next decade,” Brigandi said. 



CONTACT: Jake Stump
Director, WVU Research Communications

Call 1.855.WVU.NEWS for the latest West Virginia University news and information from WVUToday.

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.