STEM schools are working hard to make a difference for rural America’s students, offering myriad learning opportunities for young people living outside our nation’s big cities. But how are rural STEM schools doing in providing computer science education? That was the topic of a recent “Rural Matters” podcast, hosted by Michelle Rathman. For the podcast, Rathman interviewed STEM leaders from three STEMx member states: Anthony Owen, chief state STEM officer and state director of computer science education in the Arkansas Department of Education; Angela Hemingway, executive director of the Idaho STEM Action Center in the office of the governor; and Kathleen Schofield, executive director of the STEM2 Hub of northeastern Florida. Rathman, who is also president and CEO of Impact! Communications, based near Chicago, and an expert in rural health care, shared highlights of her podcast with us:

Q: Looking back on your conversation with Anthony Owen, Angela Hemingway, and Kathleen Schofield, what did you find most notable or intriguing about the STEM education efforts in each of their states? Did anything in their programs surprise you? 

A: I wasn’t surprised at all by what they shared, in fact, as a person who has been working in rural communities, specifically with small, rural hospitals, I couldn’t help but think about all sorts of new possibilities for rural students to apply the wonderful skills they’re learning in pursuit of a career in health care.

Because of my conversation with them and learning about their important work, I will be far more tuned in to STEM in rural schools and helping hospitals find new ways to partner with them to advance the efforts.

Q: Did you find a common thread among all three programs?

A: The common thread of their three approaches, in my view, is innovation. One size, in almost every case, does not fit all. With varying degrees of available resources, it is essential for states to adopt a model that works best for them.

Q: During the podcast, the problem of funding computer science education was discussed, and how to ensure that teachers receive the necessary professional development to become competent CS instructors. In your experience, talking with these and other rural leaders, have they revealed unique sources of funding that others might try to tap?

A: I have long said, “There is always a will; it’s finding a way that’s most challenging.”

Of course, seeking grants is the go-to position, and Anthony shared a pretty good size list of major companies that have funding to share.

One approach that I think holds promise in a rural setting is, to look more closely at local partners. Every rural community in this country is challenged by future workforce development. For students who go on to college, it’s crucial that we have exciting opportunities for them to come home to, careers where their STEM education is put to great use, is vital.

I think there are many opportunities to begin conversations with community leaders about the need to fund, in some capacity, this education in grades K-12. Invest in the children of our community, and encourage them to come back and invest in their community as well.

Featuring

Angela Hemingway, Idaho

Anthony Owen, Arkansas

Kathleen Schofield, Florida

Q: Do you think that rural areas have unique needs, challenges or strengths as far as computer science and STEM education go, and how can school administrators and teachers better meet those needs?

A: Rural communities are experiencing significant challenges in many areas, and indeed this holds for rural education.

It was great to learn about Idaho’s educator mentoring program, for example. Teachers want nothing more than to make sure they’re doing all they can to prepare their students for success. If each state were not just to offer, but rather, proactively engage teachers in ongoing learning and professional development in this area, I think we’d see momentum in funding these programs continue to build.

With this, we also need to expose parents to STEM. If their children do not have the support to help them with their studies at home, we’re missing an essential piece of the puzzle and, frankly, not protecting investments and gains.

Q: As a rural health expert, how do you think that STEM educators can better prepare students in rural communities for local jobs in health care?

A: Every rural hospital I work with is involved with their local schools. Typically we see programs such as the ambulance service inviting kids on board to learn about how to respond to a medical emergency, having students spend a day shadowing a doctor or nurse. There’s a program called Operation Bunny Suit, which allows older students to suit up and go into an operating room, etc.

The point is, all of these efforts focus on clinical aspects of health care. With the advancement in electronic health records, for example, and all of the applications of artificial intelligence to improve quality outcomes, we need to have STEM experts help hospitals design programs that clearly show students how their education can be used in the other aspects of a career in health care.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share from this podcast or the subject of computer science education and/or STEM education in rural schools?

A: Another favorite sentiment I share is, “What you focus your attention on expands.”

With much of the focus being on the negative aspects of public education today, I believe we are at a place where we must, as a nation, change our perspectives.

Yes, we have problems and challenges. If we want our children to thrive in the future, if we’re going to ensure that we have young people with the skills, talent and passion, it’s time for us as leaders to step up as a collective — not just pockets of people, all of us — and say, “Enough with the problems. Let’s talk about real solutions that are right-sized for rural.”

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