Grown from the STEM: Readying Rural America for the Future

By Josh Seidemann, VP of Policy, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association

If you’ve thought that pop-up ads in your email today for items you browsed last week are unsettling, then imagine a browser extension that would warn you when a website’s algorithm is working hard to focus your attention on one strain of media rather than another. 

Now imagine obtaining the educational foundation for developing that code in a small rural school. We did that today at OCRE (Organizations Concerned about Rural Education).

Rural education is a key factor in developing rural opportunities and well-being.

OCRE hosted NTCA this morning for the presentation of a Smart Rural CommunitiesSM paper on “Rural Broadband and the Next Generation of America Jobs.” First presented last April at a Capitol Hill event hosted by the Foundation for Rural Service, the paper discusses changes in the U.S. job market and how broadband can be leveraged to graduate students with the skills necessary to tackle advanced manufacturing and STEM industries.

OCRE is composed of about a dozen organizations with constituencies in rural America. Separately, these organizations focus on education, libraries, agriculture and economic development. Together, they recognize that rural education is a key factor in developing rural opportunities and well-being. 

Manufacturing, agriculture and other fields are responding to the increasing incorporation of tech and broadband connectivity. Careers that did not exist a quarter-century ago are among the fastest-growing sectors of job opportunities. School curricula that evolved to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution must evolve again to meet the demands of the Tech Revolution. These demands, however, can seem overwhelming for small school districts challenged by economies of scale that cannot support specialized instruction. Several approaches, if not a combination of them, may be advantageous.

  1. Convene local and regional industry, political leadership and school administrators to identify job and educational opportunities and to assess whether local/regional educational curricula meet those needs. Between 2009-2015, STEM jobs increased at two-times the rate of all other jobs. With the STEM economy enjoying double-digit growth, a multi-party force to capture its gains would be pivotal for rural areas.
  2. Bring rural broadband providers into the conversation to identify and/or create broadband-enabled responses such as distance education, which can bridge geographically-dispersed students and instructors. While 91% of urban students take AP courses, only 66% of rural students take those opportunities. The difference may be related to a combination of factors, but increased access can increase the take-rate.
  3. If they do not yet exist in your community, develop internship and apprenticeship programs that earn academic credit; my career in telecom started with a class that required two afternoons each week in a state public utility office. Initiatives like these can be particularly effective, as well, in health sciences, which saw a 137% increase in career and technical education (CTE) certificates and associate degrees between 2002-2012. The Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME) is a paradigm of what can be achieved through creative, multi-force efforts.

We say it all the time here . . . there are no silver bullets, but there is silver buckshot. Working together, like the individual members of OCRE, we can identify ways to combine and leverage rural strengths for exemplary education. And it won’t take a fancy algorithm to identify the good results those efforts will bring.