Rural Students and STEM in Washington State

By Barbara Peterson
August 2015

Washington State is a study in contrasts: its urban centers are home to some of the fastest growing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) employers, including Microsoft, Boeing, and Amazon. But, it also has a large number of rural districts whose students are not in the pipeline for STEM training and jobs.

Rural students who aspire to postsecondary training face barriers not shared by their urban and suburban peers. The sheer isolation of Washington State’s beautiful, remote rural districts contributes to small class sizes and difficulty in recruiting qualified teachers to teach the rigorous coursework students should complete to be competitive in postsecondary programs. Students have few options to job shadow possible careers as the rural job market, outside of the schools, is so sparse for postsecondary-prepared students. Most college-educated professionals in rural districts are teachers or school administrators.

Perhaps the most vexing challenge to rural postsecondary aspirations, however, is that when students from rural districts aspire to a postsecondary course of study, they often leave forever the small community that has nurtured them all their lives. People often choose rural districts to remain close to the land or communities important to them. Several Indian reservations are located here; families remain here to stay connected to ancestral lands and culture. For generations, the Columbia River has supported an agricultural economy of white orchardist families, now joined by a growing number of former migrant Hispanic workers, who value their proximity to large extended families.

High school counselors are torn between their job to prepare students to seek ambitious postsecondary courses of study leading to lucrative careers, and the recognition that their efforts contribute to a “brain drain” that small towns and communities lament as their most ambitious and able students leave for university.

One promising answer to this challenge is STEM jobs. Today, thousands of STEM jobs go to out-of-state job seekers as Washington cannot meet the demand with in-state applicants. Rural-area partners—many aligned with the Rural Alliance, a consortium of rural school districts, postsecondary institutions, and business and community partners—are keeping the opportunities presented by STEM in front of rural students. Large GEAR UP postsecondary outreach programs associated with Central Washington University, the University of Washington, and Washington State University expose thousands of rural students each year to STEM through STEM-focused campus visits. These programs also involve youth in real-world research, investigating the life cycles of species of flora and fauna or guiding them to observe the rural dark night sky to map previously unknown portions of the universe. Large and growing numbers of middle and high schools compete in robotics teams. Because robotics is making deep and purposeful inroads into agricultural work, these competitions have engaging and immediate real-world applications. Participating in makers’ fairs and science/engineering competitions at earlier and earlier ages helps rural students learn about STEM and see themselves as budding scientists and engineers. All these activities tap into rural students’ pragmatic and resourceful make up.

While most current STEM jobs are located in the Puget Sound corridor, many STEM jobs exist or will come soon to rural regions. The Affordable Care Act provides health care to thousands of rural families, many for the first time, which will spur demand for rural health providers. Most medical students hail from urban or suburban homes, unlikely to make a permanent lifestyle switch to small town living, so this suggests a medical school path for rural students. STEM professionals work as engineers in dams along the Columbia and other rivers, as scientists in the Hanford nuclear facility, as wildlife biologists and resource managers. Many of these professionals will reach retirement age this decade. The push is on to connect rural students to these lucrative careers in or near the communities where they were raised.

Other changes in the global world of work, including off-sourcing engineering tasks to interconnected teams around the world using communications technologies, means that rural isolation need not keep students from lively and engaging work that’s close to home. In addition to supporting the growing STEM applications in their rural communities, enterprising STEM-prepared rural students can turn to supporting global customers, taking advantage of their entrepreneurial can-do attitudes, practical approaches, and, for many, global language skills.