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House advances bill to expand rural STEM education

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Rural STEM Education Research Act offers rural students more access to quality STEM education.

In action May 18, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bipartisan Rural STEM Education Research Act which was introduced by Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who serves as the ranking member of the committee.

The legislation addresses the inequities faced by rural students that make it harder to access quality STEM education, including giving teachers more resources and training in STEM, engaging students in hands-on education within their communities, increasing access to broadband, and supporting research to improve the quality of STEM learning in rural communities. The House passed H.R. 210 - the Rural STEM Education Research Act - by a vote of 350-75.

STEM - science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, including computer science - education for rural students is not an isolated problem: Nearly half of all schools are considered rural, and more than nine million students, or roughly 20% of all schoolchildren, attend rural schools. And of the 21 million Americans who lack access to broadband, the majority live in rural areas. These barriers set rural students back, making them less competitive in the evolving job market, according to Lucas.

The bill seeks to award grants to nonprofit organizations or higher education institutions for research and development to advance STEM teaching in rural schools. The bill also establishes a broadband research and development working group to explore challenges and opportunities for expanding broadband access and implementation.

“Nationally, 80% of the fastest growing occupations depend upon mastery of STEM skills and the number of STEM jobs is growing three times faster than non-STEM jobs. To succeed in this job market, our students need to be equipped with solid skills in science and engineering. Meeting this demand starts in the classroom,” says Lucas.

“The Rural STEM Education Research Act supports research and development activities to improve our understanding of the challenges rural communities are facing and it takes steps to provide and sustain quality STEM education programs,” Lucas adds. “Taken together, the measures in the bill will make great strides to improve rural STEM education. I believe rural areas represent one of the greatest, yet most underutilized, opportunities for talented students to enhance the United States’ future STEM workforce.”

Lucas also notes that STEM jobs are growing three times faster than non-STEM jobs, and students who bring STEM degrees and skills to the workforce have starting salaries more than 30% higher than their counterparts.

The Rural STEM Education Act supports research and development activities to improve understanding of the challenges rural communities are facing in providing and sustaining quality STEM education programs and takes steps to address them.

H.R. 210 helps develop best practices for accessing and using computer-based and online STEM education courses. It helps schools combine online STEM education with hands-on training and apprenticeships to give students both theoretical and practical understanding of science and math skills.

This bill also takes steps to address one of the key obstacles to rural STEM education – reduced connectivity, and, particularly, the lack of broadband access. It directs the National Institutes of Standards and Technology to establish a prize competition to stimulate innovations in technologies to deploy broadband connectivity to underserved rural communities. It also establishes a working group to set key research priorities for improving broadband access so rural communities can enjoy the same connectedness as the rest of the country.

This bill supports opportunities for rural educators to refresh and enhance their own STEM knowledge, such as training in computer science or research opportunities at Federal Laboratories and universities. 

Lastly, the bill broadens the participation of rural students in STEM by emphasizing place-based learning, which gives students the direct access to the STEM knowledge present in their communities and local environment. 

“I am pleased that the Rural STEM Education Research Act has passed the House with bipartisan support. Both STEM education and quality broadband access are critical to the future success and revitalization of rural America. I am hopeful that this legislation will break down barriers rural Iowans face in receiving STEM education and identify the technological and logistical challenges we still must overcome to provide broadband to every last acre of land,” says co-sponsor Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa.

In this era of scientific and technological innovation, it has never been more important to ensure our students have access to quality STEM education programs -- especially in our rural communities,” Feenstra said on the House floor. “Implementing high-speed, reliable broadband goes hand-in-hand with this goal.”

The bill has been endorsed by  the STEM Education Coalition, Battelle, STEMx, the National Science Teaching Association, the After School Alliance., the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., Microsoft, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and the National FFA Organization.

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