Solve for Tomorrow Teachers Work to Reverse ‘Rural Brain Drain’
Sheffield, Alabama, pop. 8,894, may not be a hotbed of tech enterprise just yet, but that hasn’t stopped local science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teacher, Gina McCarley of Sheffield High School, from envisioning it, with the help of software developers from around the country.
That’s the idea behind a panel discussion on the “rural brain drain” at this year’s Samsung Developer Conference (SDC), an annual event held in Silicon Valley that brings together thousands of developers, creators, and technologists to explore the newest tech and imagine what’s possible in the future.
As economic and demographic shifts continue to favor urban areas the world over for establishing tech industry, rural communities are experiencing a loss of economic opportunity and a continuous migration of STEM-educated young locals looking for knowledge-based work in urban areas with more opportunities and better infrastructure.
But a pair of computer science teachers from small-town America and former winners of Samsung Solve for Tomorrow, are speaking out on what could help reverse this trend. At SDC last week, they told developers how forging a connection with teachers and students in a rural American community can be critical to helping develop STEM educational and experiential work opportunities that can empower the next generation of tech professionals, stemming the tide of the rural brain drain phenomena.
“As we celebrate the 10th anniversary year of Samsung Solve for Tomorrow, we continue to find new ways to continue our investment in classrooms and communities that have been impacted by contest participation, explained Ann Woo, Sr. Director of Corporate Citizenship for Samsung Electronics America. “SDC was an ideal platform for two of our most dedicated Solve for Tomorrow alumni teachers to highlight issues they work to improve every day and solicit support from the developer community who can help extend their impact on educating future generations.”
Joining Woo on stage for the panel discussion, “Reversing the Rural Brain Drain,” were Maureen Pollitz, educator at Nicholson Elementary School, in Picayune, Mississippi and McCarley, computer science and business education teacher at Sheffield High School in Alabama. The two are both past national winners of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow national STEM contest.
McCarley said STEM teachers feel the effects of the brain drain in their small communities especially keenly as their best and brightest graduates typically must leave the area for STEM-career-ready opportunities.
“As teachers, we can advocate for children at the school board level and in Silicon Valley,”McCarley said. She said educators must communicate to school administrators how essential computer science education is for all kinds of jobs today. And she said teachers can also help bring employers into the conversation so that promising, skilled STEM jobs can become a more frequent reality in rural America.
“Technology itself has made tech jobs portable, so it’s doable,” McCarley said.
The two teachers’ call-to-action for developers after making a connection with a rural community teacher included making a five-minute video via smartphone that describes a day in the life of a developer, sharing developers’ hiring stories and advice they wish they’d had in high school.
“Students have to see it to be it,” McCarley said, and noted that a video can have an outsized impact on class after class. Pollitz said developers can also find avenues with a rural community to sponsor student internships through their companies, offer a professional’s validation for a teacher’s tech proposal to a school board, and serve as an advisor to teachers on the latest trends in the tech industry as well as mentor students remotely.
While McCarley and Pollitz are rallying Silicon Valley to reach out to rural communities, there are one or two economic factors that could be working in their favor. The high cost of living and doing business in coastal tech hubs could encourage entrepreneurs, start-ups and even big employers to search for talent farther afield, where minimal infrastructure investment could set up remote employees or establish a physical presence in markets with lower barriers to entry.
“With STEM-educated kids from rural America, you’re getting a different perspective, which adds to the employee diversity that so many companies seek,” McCarley said.
The two teachers noted how student participation in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest can lead to greater personal investment in their rural areas because they’re solving problems in their own communities. With problem-based learning, the STEM education approach utilized in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest, students take ownership of their work and see first-hand its real-world impact, they both explained.
None of this will happen without the STEM teachers to grow the public school curricula and offerings and to guide and inspire students. And here again, Sheffield’s McCarley is leading the way. She was a national pilot teacher in a new Advanced Placement course, Computer Science Principles, which was the largest course launch in AP’s history. It ties together the biggest themes in computing, from algorithms and coding to the global impact of computing, and McCarley said it has sparked interest in STEM teaching in Alabama and elsewhere.