By Louisiana Fellow Rob Howle
If you leave the large city of Baton Rouge and travel north down La. Hwy 1 towards Marksville, you will arrive at the small town of New Roads, Louisiana. New Roads is a tight-knit community in Pointe Coupee Parish that is situated on the banks of the beautiful False River (which is not actually a river, but that is a topic for a different time). Pointe Coupee Parish has a small power plant, but its main industry is farming. Pointe Coupee Parish is ranked in the top five in the state for the production of sugarcane, soybeans, and wheat. As you travel through the parish on a fall day it's obvious that farming is a crucial part of the economy, because in field after field people are “cutting the cane” or about the “cut the cane.” As a newly hired principal, my job was to open a new STEM-based school in the town and recruit students from the public and private schools to attend. As I worked to accomplish this task, I discovered three realities that I did not anticipate.
Reality #1 There were two types of STEM curriculums: one was affordable and useless and the other was amazing but ridiculous expensive.
Reality #2 No one wanted to give me a grant for a school that didn’t exist yet.
Reality #3 No one knew what the heck STEM even meant!
As I traveled to different parts of the parish and held parent meetings, the question I heard over and over was, “What is STEM and how can my child benefit from a school with a STEM based curriculum?” I gave the typical talking points answers. A STEM curriculum will help your child with deep thinking skills, it’s challenging and more hands-on, and it will eventually help them get a good job. I traveled to meeting after meeting, answering the same questions the same ways until one night a parent asked, “What does STEM mean?” I answered the question with the typical science, technology, engineering, & math without going into much detail. A few days later something amazing and surprising happen. It all started with a tractor.
I was working out of the school board office, which was only about six miles from my school. The school was going through major renovations because the facility had been closed for years and was in a serious state of disrepair. I travelled to the school weekly to check the progress of the renovations but on this particular day my commute was taking longer than normal. I found myself stuck behind an enormous, green monstrous tractor that was slowly moving down the road. As I crept down La. Hwy 1 behind the tractor it hit me (not the tractor, a realization). My whole view of why we should have STEM concepts in schools were misguided for Pointe Coupee Parish’s needs.
Pointe Coupee Parish is a rural community, and rural communities have plenty of STEM opportunities, but those opportunities present themselves in a different matter than urban communities. Eureka!! Farming is a STEM job. From the design of the tractor's engine, transmission and general operational parts, to the electrical and computer systems that actually control the operation of the tractor, a tractor is a STEM job opportunity. The advancements in tractor technologies have made farming easier and more efficient but have also created very complex systems, so that the average tractor dealerships will struggle to find competent mechanics who can not only repair the engine system, but also the computer systems. Normal supply and demand theories tell us that mechanics that can repair all systems of a modern tractor will be in high demand, thus their salaries will be higher than the average mechanic.
This outlook on STEM within the rural community changed my whole perspective of the future of STEM. I began to see STEM in many aspects of rural life. Farming is its own industry within the rural community and it supports many small businesses that include STEM jobs. From pesticides, fertilizers, and soil consultants, to crop dusters and soil renewal methods, these all are STEM jobs that are created as a result of the modern farm. To engage a community in STEM efforts, it is important that we understand their needs and how STEM will help lead their youth to success beyond high school.