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RURAL SCHOOLS CONNECT TO INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS VIRTUALLY

05/18/2016
CAREER PATHWAYS
By Sabari Raja

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Public schools in rural areas enroll nearly 12 million students, representing 24 percent of all students in the United States. By comparison, 31 million live in the suburbs or cities. Bottom line? Nearly a quarter of all U.S. students live in rural areas and they have no access to diverse industry; thus they have no idea of their career options beyond what exists in their community.

I know what it is like to live in a rural community. I grew up on a coconut farm in south India, surrounded by nature, waking up to wailing peacocks, and plucking mangoes right from the tree. It was a wonderful way to grow up but there was one problem; the nearest good school was 50 miles away. I was sent to that boarding school when I turned five years old because that was the only way I would see potentials for my life beyond the farm.

A Population Segment Left Behind

Now, many decades later, I live in Austin, Texas where innovative high tech companies lurk in every corner. My two boys have a very different view of the world. They know what a semiconductor engineer does. They watch Shark Tank and talk about entrepreneurship. They understand what video game designers do. They know about sports analysts, journalists, electrical engineers, programmers and even Pedologists. By the way, I learned that a pedologist is a soil scientist from my eight-year-old son. He corrected me one day when I thought a pedologist is a foot doctor. “That’s a podiatrist!” he told me.

My kids have a different view of the world and what the future holds. Two hundred miles away in Roscoe, Texas, this isn’t the case. Roscoe resembles the rural community where I grew up, sans the coconut trees. There are no doctors, labs or hospitals. There is no industry. Kids in this part of the world have very limited ideas about what they can do. They know about farming or the military but most don’t realize there are other options for their lives as adults.

Imagine the possibility of these students being able to chat with professionals in diverse careers from around the world. That is what technology can bring to rural schools, a bridge to industry and new possibilities for students.

Why Does Industry Engagement Matter?

Think back to when you chose your career. Often times there was one moment, one person or a single event that affected your choice of career. In my case, my uncle was a successful entrepreneur with a doctorate in chemistry. His presence, the stories he told and his encouragement opened my eyes to possibilities. Despite my rural upbringing, the glimpse into his life filled with technology, entrepreneurship, failures and great success was alluring and became a driving force in my life.

Yes, it is as simple as one person or experience. Microsoft STEM perceptions study reports that 56 percent of boys and 67 percent of girls who chose a STEM career did so because of one event or one person in their life. More alarming is that the absence of role models or seminal experiences can have deleterious effects on graduation rates. The recent Gates Foundation study discovered that 47 percent of dropouts did so because they didn’t see the relevance of classroom learning to the real world. With a shared commitment between industry and education, we can change these sobering statistics. We can bring relevance to every classroom and give students a glimpse into a world they never knew existed. Many companies like AT&T are setting ambitious goals like one million hours of employee engagement with students. This is a great start. Technology can help them reach farther and impact more students, even in rural communities.

Efficiencies of Scale Solve
the Problem of Distance

How does that involvement happen? Technology makes it possible to address this problem with efficiencies of scale. Experts and professionals can connect with classrooms online in virtual conversations and sessions. These live discussions and interactions are as engaging as being in person but no one has to drive anywhere. The need to bridge distance and time by using technology is most apparent in rural communities where no industry exists. Professionals can rarely afford to drive for hours to a rural school. The school cannot afford to bus kids to the nearest town. We have to approach this problem by thinking sustainably and Roscoe Collegiate is a shining example of how this is done.

Roscoe Collegiate is a rural school in transformation. Their goal is to keep kids in school and on track to productive careers. Dr. Kim Alexander, superintendent of Roscoe ISD, is a visionary who works tirelessly to build community partnerships with industry, higher education, workforce boards, policy makers and education stakeholders beyond the borders of his town. He is an early adopter of innovative technology giving his students a clear path to college through chosen pathways. He uses online sessions to connect students virtually with companies like Texas Instruments, General Motors, and Sony Electronics. Now hundreds of his students are aspiring programmers, electrical engineers, technicians and journalists because of working professionals they have meet online.

One of his students, Austin, who is now a senior in Roscoe said, “Before I had a chance to chat with all these industry professionals virtually, I was considering a military career but now I know that military is not my only option.”

Another rural Texas district, Royse City ISD, connects with experts for their regular classes as well as their gifted students. After a virtual session with a brain expert from New York, gifted specialist teacher Kelly Margot said, “I really think the great equalizer for equity with children is experiences. Experiences bridge that gap to give them opportunities to know what is out there. Technology can eliminate geographic barriers to bring experiences with the world into my classroom. Yesterday my students were able to talk to a brain expert in New York. Today a student came in fired up about his next research idea over Cures for Neurological Issues. The expert told the kids what happens in the brain that causes autism. This kid wants to know what is being done to fix it. Virtual interactions with industry are transforming my classroom. My students are reaping the benefits. The world will eventually be rewarded by their curiosity.”

Caleb, a sophomore at Roscoe ISD said after a live virtual chat with a computer science engineer who works for an aerospace company, “I felt like he was talking to me although he was talking to a class of students. Seeing his level of success in life I was imagining myself in his shoes and then I reached out and enrolled in a programming class. I want to go to college and study computer science.” There are millions of professionals who have the skills to inspire students like Caleb and Austin, if only we will pave the way to make these moments of discovery happen.

Sabari Raja is the CEO and co-founder of Nepris. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two young sons.
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Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

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