Rustbelt & Rural Places

Rural and Rust Belt regions are untapped (and often excluded) sources of innovation, development, and partnership. The future of work, the economy, and society are being rocked by transformative technology. Smart automation and artificial intelligence (AI) based systems are increasingly pervasive.  The unequal use of and access to these technologies threatens to further deepen inequities and contribute to political and social polarization. Research reveals higher barriers to participation in STEM education and careers for rural and urban communities compared to their suburban peers. These barriers to participation are not uniform and should be addressed as such across diverse communities and geographies. A place-based and people-focused approach will help us better understand how to increase access and develop more equitable pathways that enable more individuals to pursue high-demand STEM careers of their choosing (rather than a singular focus on workforce development).

Supporting STEM access and opportunities is a shared goal across US Federal and Pennsylvania State agencies. There are very strong policy arguments for continued investments and action to further inclusion. To secure the nation’s future competitiveness and security, all Americans must have the opportunity to become partners in the national innovation ecosystem. The Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan envisions that all Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education (Link). To reach the national STEM goals, the Federal government has called upon all government agencies to develop strategic partnerships and foster STEM ecosystems. Pennsylvania made important investments in STEM education and access under Governor Tom Wolf‘s administration through the PASmart Initiative (Link).  

Rural matters – Rural may still be understudied, overlooked, and underfunded:  At many research universities (R1s), rural access and development infrequently stake center stage in our research or outreach agendas.  Therefore, gaps in understanding, access to data, networks, and knowledge about rural spaces are perhaps the norm rather than the exception.  

Consider this seemingly simple question: What is Rural?  

“The Census Bureau does not actually define “rural.” Rather, rural areas include all geographic areas that are not classified as urban. Data from the ACS indicate that about 61 million people, or 19 percent of the population, lived in rural areas of the United States in 2016. Although less than one-fifth of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, these areas encompass about 97 percent of the total land area in the United States.” (Report Link)

What comes next? In 2024, as part of my commitment to broadening participation, I will share ongoing work that focuses on understanding the challenges that disconnected rural communities face in providing STEM resources and education. This will be both a reflective and active process (with goals to bring rural more firmly into our equity and inclusion lens and to further refine the engagement framework). This work builds on the idea that STEM can drive economic growth (such as the US EDA Tech Hubs).  My approach emphasizes the importance of a people and place-centered approach, and to do so, draws upon social innovation and learning theories.  By sharing diverse perspectives and lived experiences, we can work towards shared experiences, a common language, and connected visions that will open doors and reduce barriers to persistent underrepresentation in STEM. 

Core framework social innovation and learning theories

  • Experiential Learning Theory, Styles, & Spaces (Kolb, 1984)
  • Collective Impact (Kania & Kramer, 2011)
  • Social Construction of Technology – SCOT (Bijker, 1990)
  • Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999; Hammond 2013) 
  • Self-Compassion (Neff, 2011) 
  • Scale Out, Scale Up, & Scale Deep (Moore, 2015 ) 
  • Asset-Based Community Development  – ABCD 

I strive to combine Collective Impact’s strengths of a common agenda, data-informed, and the measurability of action with theories that center kindness and compassion. Sue Annis Hammond describes the change management process of Appreciative Inquiry as being anchored by “dignity, kindness, respect, and inclusiveness” (Hammond, pg 9).  This has helped to curate my approach: kindness, compassion, respect, and inclusion. 

In our world of increasing distraction and overload/overwhelm, compassion (Neff) and intentional focus are in short supply but essential. Action taken is not action for action’s sake.  I am also very concretely connecting lessons learned to reimagine the design and implementation of undergraduate STEM research programs (i.e., such as the RI Summer Scholars program).  

I am grateful for the partnerships, friendships, trust, and support that have enabled this work.   Looking forward to learning, uncovering more blindspots, taking action, and continuing this journey together.

Sparked by a 2019 visit by Venango students, educators, and community leaders to Carnegie Mellon University (an elite research university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), it has been nearly a half-decade learning journey with a focus on better understanding perceptions, gaps, and barriers that prevent rural students from participating in STEM education, career paths, and in many cases applying to Carnegie Mellon University (other Carnegie classified R1 universities).  As one visitor from a rural community noted, “Carnegie Mellon is only one hour away but it might as well be on the moon because we can never get there.” (Carnegie Mellon was founded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie and modeled after the practical trade and technical schools in Scotland.)  

Rachel Burcin, January 2024

Copyright 2024.