"When the going gets tough, the tough get going." It’s an old adage, but one that holds a lot of truth, at least when it comes to the youth in rural and tribal communities hit the hardest by our most recent economic downturn. This is our heartland: areas that have lost jobs, industry, and population over the past decade. It’s an old problem, but one that a STEM education can potentially help solve.
Innovation Comes from Everywhere
Graduation rates in tribal areas in the U.S. are among the lowest of all student subgroups. In rural communities, factors like low wages, declining industry, population decreases, and general brain drain mean life has changed dramatically in just a generation. The tough – or rather, the ingenious in these communities – are making do and creating change. Today communities all over the U.S. are looking inward to leverage local assets, start new businesses, invest in infrastructure and sustainable industries, and build their workforces in ways that keep their citizenry competitive and keep wealth – as well as youthful brains – inside their zip codes.
It’s a growing trend. According to CNBC, the most "innovative place in America" isn’t San Francisco or even Manhattan; it’s Guthrie County, Iowa, which filed more utility patents per person in 2014 than any place in Silicon Valley. It’s all about being able to think big and think differently – something STEM education can give students through tools that help them develop, nurture, and leverage big, creative thinking.
STEM Equals Skills for Today and Tomorrow
Think about the typical "STEM" careers: those in the sciences, medicine, technology, and engineering. In our rural and tribal areas they’re few and far between. But STEM learning itself is far more than simply an education in the sciences or technology. It’s a foundation for growth, whether a student’s immediate future is in a high-tech field or in the family cornfield down the lane.
STEM skills are higher order thinking skills: creative, evaluative, analytical skills that apply just as well to a career in medicine as they do to one in business, farming, childcare, or office work. And a formal, K-12 educational experience is the best way to teach these skills.
Fortunately, STEM education need not look like the lectures and labs of yesteryear. STEM learning is especially effective when conducted in a hands-on, inquiry-based environment that lets students be scientists, honing and practicing their skills in real-life situations right in the classroom. This is learning by doing; that is, learning that scaffolds intuitively from acquisition to mastery as students question and solve problems, hypothesize and experiment, prototype solutions, measure results, create new things, and communicate to others what they’ve discovered.
STEM as Opportunity
What can STEM do for our hard-hit and underserved communities? Raise them up. In 2014, the U.S. economy added more than 2.7 million jobs. However, our employment rate is still the lowest it’s been in 30 years, with low-skilled workers falling further and further behind as low-skilled jobs disappear or are squeezed into unlivable wage brackets. The future, it seems, lies in something new and different.
According to the White House’s STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan, the Committee on STEM Education National Science and Technology Council reports that we are now in a vital "time of opportunity" with regard to STEM careers, which are set to dramatically outpace growth in other sectors in the near future. This means that making an investment in STEM education is an investment in our communities – especially in those hard-hit by economic issues. To make this happen, K-12 STEM education must become a part of cross-sector strategies that give students the skills they need to be able to climb tomorrow’s career ladders. And that can happen anywhere.
Rural and tribal America have always relied on grit, ingenuity, adaptability, and the creativity of their communities to innovate their way out of tough situations. Today is no different. Beyond supporting the next generation of careers, STEM also gives children the next generation of higher-order tools they’ll need to succeed and keep success both coming down the road ahead and close to home.