I’ve been working with Lee County High School in Beattyville, Ky (for climbers that would be part of the Red River Gorge area) the last few years, collaborating as a volunteer on behalf of Microsoft and their non-profit TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) incubation. Lee County High School (LCHS) was one of two initial remote pilot programs that were undertaken to see if TEALS could expand beyond Washington State. It is also a rural school, which is an atypical focus for most STEM initiatives in the Nation today. The school has gone from only offering an Introduction to Computer Science course with 6 students to offering both Intro and AP Computer Science with 22 students in the Intro class and 7 students in the AP class. 50% of the enrollments are girls, which is huge!
Computer technology makes up a large portion of most occupations these days. It is estimated in the next decade that about 1,000,000 CS jobs will be available but only ~440,000 graduates in the US to vie for these positions. It’s estimated that only 29% of our rising CS workforce in the US is capable of meeting this demand. For Kentucky, that equates to about 36,000 jobs in the next 4 years. With mining job losses continuing to rise in Eastern Kentucky, there is a lot of focus on reinventing the region. Sarah Gardner of NPR did this wonderful article asking the question: “is there life after coal?” Technology is one part of what it will take to forge a new economic frontier for the area, and CS education for their youth plays a significant role.
The more time I spend in the region getting to know the administration, the school staff, the students, regional issues, educators and state influentials, the more I realize how important this program is for the State. LCHS might be small but we have computer enthusiasts, some that will continue exploring computer education long after high school. The bottom line is that computers are everywhere, and these kids need exposure. Not just exposure to word processing, administrative management, or web development, but they need to understand how to make computers work for them. By enabling this, they have the power to create and take charge of applications to make them do what they need.
Learning remotely has significant impact for kids in rural areas, like Eastern Kentucky. When these students come into class, they sit in front of their workstation, log on and get to work/learning. The class teacher is on the teleconference, broadcast in the front of the room as well as in front of each student. The students log in independently but can see each of their classmates online and the teacher and teaching assistants. The room is mostly quiet, except for the online teacher. Every now and again, if you were an observer, you would hear giggles and twitters, but not much more. The students speak through texting in the conferencing window. Pauses and silent gaps means the students are communicating with the teacher and with each other. I’ve even observed side chatter but it is quick and mostly unobtrusive. The in-service teacher walks the room looking over their shoulders, popping in from time to time to interrupt and get a pulse on the students engagement and comprehension level. She provides this feedback back to the remote teachers who can then address anything in the next class.
From this experience it was clear 2 things, as stated by visiting observers over time as well. First, the students come in, sit down, log in and the room goes quiet. The teacher never has to tell them to get to work. Next, the kids have a natural affinity to this social media type learning style. These remote skills they are honing in this class will play a critical role in the skills necessary to build and sustain jobs from rural areas such as Lee County. However, I am acutely aware that the corporate space today does not invite nor foster these kinds of skills, which will make it difficult for these kids to go away and get an education and then feel that they can come home one day and take their work with them.
As it is, every student in the Intro class when polled recently, said they were leaving Lee County and never coming back. When asked what it would take to keep them, there didn’t seem to be anything that could be created or enhanced. It seems as a demographic, they are following the trend of more and more youth moving to urban places. But, that’s ok, isn’t it? Kids should leave home, explore the world, get an education, but at some point, they may feel the tug of their hometown or a yearning to nest where they grew up. Family circumstances may force them back sooner than they would like. But salary, life passions or ambitions might be sacrificed to make this change. Or, they’ll never consider it and all of the talent being developed will disappear from the region. These are real issues Eastern Kentucky faces and issues of which the Senator is keenly aware. Jobs and educational opportunities were the gist of his visit.
I had the privilege to hear the Senator speak to the community at lunch that day prior to his visit to the High School. I had never been to one of these types of rallies before. I’m not that politically minded, except when it comes to helping these kids in Eastern Kentucky. Whatever political stance he holds, when it comes to this town, he’s actually doing something to help solve their number one issue: Broadband.
Without internet and decent bandwidth, the county suffers as a whole. They are now the last county in the entire state to not be wired. With the Senator’s support and Microsoft’s TEALS program making an impact, AT&T is motivated to help solve the problem. The situation does not lend for a trivial solution and it’s taking too long for progress to be made here. It’s been over a year and though we finally have fiber to 1200 homes, it’s still not enough and worse, it’s not turned on. Satellite internet is the best you can get and it costs $49.99 for 10GB a month for ‘high speed’ internet. You can buy up to 10GB more for $10 a GB, but once you use it up, you are on the slow speed and those rates don’t allow for video playback let alone teleconferencing with desktop or application sharing, which are important to my job. This is what I have at the house when I am staying there and it’s simply annoying. I can use 2GB a day easily just for work. Rationing internet usage is a foreign concept these days anywhere else.
Naturally, when the Senator confirmed he’d be visiting the TEALS program at LCHS, broadband constraints were going to come up and they did. Funding, private sector and university support were the other areas he needed to hear about as expansion of TEALS depends on not only LCHS’s and schools like Lee County’s ability to sustain this type of program but these other interests to provide the resources to support that expansion.
It’s hard to know from his whirlwind tour if any of this resonated to a degree that he will do something during the rest of this term or if he’s too busy trying to drum up votes to secure his seat. So far, there has been zero press on his visit to Lee County High School from his campaign side or even in the local press. Microsoft was all over it, of course, but I’m not sure what it means that general press was not more social about it. I had expected something at least locally and was surprised to find his other regional stops tweeted but nothing on LCHS. 😦
In my next post you can read an overview of the events at Lee County High School, which includes personal stories of how TEALs has impacted individuals and the community. This class is changing lives. It’s incredible to be a part of that change.
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