Is Computer Science Education an Antidote to Rural Brain Drain?

CSforALL
CSforALL
Jul 23 · 5 min read

How can computer science education support the change of social and economic vitality in rural America? CSforALL’s member, Thinking Media- Learning Blade, shares their key ingredient.

A student sitting at her desk with her computer taking an online CS course.

Have you heard of the rural brain drain? It is a concept based on the idea that many rural students leave their communities in the search for higher-wage, high-demand jobs right out of college. This outward migration of young, college-educated workers from rural areas can present significant social and economic challenges for rural communities across America.

Computer Science education can be an incredible lever in combating the rural brain drain. Virtual or at-home work has always been more accepted in the IT industry than in traditional workplaces, and the experiences of the past year have made this even more acceptable in nearly all industries. With the incredibly high demand for graduates with computer science and programming skills, this has created an even higher opportunity for high-paying jobs that can be performed from local and rural communities.

The latest US labor statistic for the end of 2020 indicated 1.4 million unfilled CS jobs and only 400,000 new computer science graduates. This data only represents the gap in the US and globally skilled programmers are in high demand. This represents an incredible opportunity for students from rural communities who have skills and abilities in computer science. Coupled with the fact that COVID-19 changed how people work. The pandemic made it clear to employers around the world that workers, especially in the technology sector, can successfully complete their job duties while working remotely. In fact, many large technology companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Twitter are rethinking the need for massive downtown office spaces in the centers of big cities and allowing their employees to relocate.

Traditionally, out-migration from rural areas has been the result of rural labor markets small size, limited education options, low diversity, and lower wage scale, making it more challenging for young people looking to make a living and find their first job. However, this is changing. Now rural students have the option to both gain technical skills and obtain a challenging job online. But a major obstacle still exists — we have to inform students of the options that exist in computer science. Students need to visualize themselves in these careers, work to gain the necessary skills, and then advertise their skills to potential employers nationwide. This task begins in K-12 education.

At the 2019 National Computer Science Summit for State Leaders hosted by Governor Asa Hutchinson, computer science educators from over 30 states gathered in person to discuss how to improve computer science efforts and outcomes for students in their states. The Governors in attendance made insightful remarks how computer science education is leveling the playing field for rural communities and providing students with 21st century skills that can allow them to remain in their rural communities.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas, noted however that, “The key ingredient is creating the demand for computer science in the students, because superintendents and principals will always respond to the needs of students.” Creating a demand for more rural computer science courses can also be challenging in rural communities where students have never met someone working in the computer science industry. The other obstacle is the lack of teachers in computer science. One of the best computer science teachers in Arkansas was actually a French teacher who explained that she saw computer science as teaching another language. Efforts need to continue the focus on increasing trained teachers.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, at the same National CSforALL Summit commented that, “All students should be able to have the opportunity to learn about computer science no matter where they live,” making the case for rural educators to adopt a more rigorous plan for integrating CS into their curriculums.

To increase student demand, it is essential to introduce students the 21st century job opportunities that their computer science skills help prepare them for. At Learning Blade, we are providing rural schools the resources, for any teacher, to introduce students to the high-demand, high-wage, computer science, STEM and CTE pathways using an online platform that connects academic standards to the exploration of careers. This strategy is working, with over 5,000,000 online CS/STEM/CTE career lessons completed. The idea behind Learning Blade is quite simple — students can’t be what they can’t see. If they do not know a career path exists, how can they express to their teachers and parents their interests? In our Hack Attack Mission, for example, we provide teachers 10 hours of interdisciplinary, online, academic standards-aligned curriculum that expose middle school students to CS career paths such as UI/UX designer, cyber security analysts, software engineers and so many more. This allows teachers to ignite student interest in CS at an earlier age, which in turn will lead to more students choosing CS electives in high school. In fact, this approach, has been validated by Battelle, showing that using Learning Blade’s career focus program students are twice as interested in a STEM/CS career path. Battelle has also leaned in to support the Learning Blade platform at rural schools near the many National Labs that they operate.

Wes Hall, Vice President for Philanthropy and Education at Battelle, says that “Computer science education is a national priority and front and center for many state STEM efforts, including the members of the national STEMx network. Helping teachers get high-quality professional development to teach computer science is one key approach. Resources for students like Learning Blade can inspire young people to see computer science as a pathway for their future.”

With the increasing availability for remote working opportunities provided by platforms like Zoom, Google Hangout, and Microsoft Teams, students who were once lured away by big-city living and better-paying jobs can now effectively pursue high-wage technology jobs while remotely working from their local community, should they so desire.

About the Author: Learning Blade®, a product of Thinking Media, is a supplemental STEM and computer science toolbox of interactive online lessons, ready-to-use lessons plans and classroom activities proven to increase STEM and computer science career awareness for middle school students. Follow on Twitter and Facebook, @LearningBlade, or email info@learningblade.com for information.

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