STEM and a Tale of Two Locales

The term digital divide is widely used to mean a separation between those who have access to computers/advanced technology and those who don’t. But there’s an additional divide that separates k12 students from their peers.  I call it the aspirational divide after some of the recent anthropological/sociological studies that use attitudes, not income, race or so-called “class” to divide groups.  The studies measure students and their parents’ aspirations for their future.  What kind of careers and education they are hoping to acquire. My story is based on the differences aspirations depending on locale.  The aspirational divide may be as high as the Continental Divide, depending on where you live.

I was raised in the Pacific Northwest in a thriving suburb of Seattle.  Fortunately at some point, Bill Gates and Paul Allen decided to return their growing company to their birthplace.  Students growing up in the shadow of Microsoft are highly aspirational and are in daily contact with the wealth and knowledge that technology brings.  When my oldest son was 9, he went to visit his father at Starwave, and me at Microsoft.  His comment was that the employees at Microsoft had nicer cars, and therefore he wanted to work at Microsoft when he grows up. Students in the schools near Microsoft, may or may not get good technology integration and specific computer science/advanced technology courses in their school rooms.  However, their informal access to technology and learning opportunities can only be matched at other high tech centers worldwide.  Students at Interlake High School are a good example. A few of them got frustrated that they didn’t get more hands on access to play with tech tools and solve tech problems. Highly confident and aspirational, what did they do?  They started their own tech club, and can call on their parents, and other resources as needed.

 I believe that the club can be recreated elsewhere – currently Microsoft Partners in Learning is funding Student Tech Clubs in Africa that are easy to replicate. The question is can we replicate the aspiration and interest, and students’ confidence in their own abilities? In urban settings with technology as an important industry, for example, Boston, LA and Seattle, there are many organizations that do outreach around STEM, and tech to underprivileged and minority students, both in formal and informal settings. There are many successful examples of these, such as Technology Access Foundation, created by a past Microsoft employee, M.E.S.A, which has many branches and programs in California, MIT outreach programs, and others.  These work – they each have studies that show success for their program.  And leaders of these programs comment that any efforts work – it’s about believing in students and their potential.  Once students realize they have potential, they develop aspirations.  I’m not saying that there are enough of these programs to reach every child – we need to do better, but we have plenty of models that work.

And then there’s my home town of Butte, Montana. Situated near the Continental Divide, Butte has many sad examples of the Aspirational Divide.  Butte has been struggling to hang on with its high altitude, harsh climate, and depleted mines, since its early peak in the 1900’s.  Once my father earned his law degree, my parents realized that we couldn’t thrive in Butte, as the 4th generation there, without jobs for “educated folk”.  They had aspirations for their children.  When my 9 year old son went to Butte, the first thing he noticed was how old and poor the cars were. So unlike the Starwave and Microsoft parking lots – unfortunately, the students and families in poor rural areas, don’t have the basis of comparison.    I have helped Frank Ackerman and his colleagues from the CS department at Montana Tech teach classes to middle school children on Career Day. They used Alice educational software and the students were completely engaged – so much so that they refused to quit after 40 minutes to go to the next session.  When Frank got a grant to provide middle school teachers in Montana with training on tech courses, no one signed up.  When Chuck Uggetti, retired superintendent of the public school district, added more rigorous curriculum and Advanced Placement courses, parents and students complained that the curriculum was too hard and they couldn’t get good grades.

The challenge is to change the environment to create aspirations.  Exposure, access and hope for a better future matter.