During her first year teaching at Lake City High School in rural South Carolina, Patsy Williamson was approached by a student in her environmental and marine science class. He was writing about the local beaches and couldn’t figure out when visitors should go. Williamson suggested he draw on his own experience. “I said, ‘You’ve been to the beach and seen all the jellyfish, haven’t you?’” The boy looked back blankly. “He said, ‘No, ma’am. I’ve never been to the beach.’”
“I was dumbstruck,” says Williamson, a long-time teacher who was a newcomer to rural schools. “He lives 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. ...That’s poverty. It’s not lack of motivation. It’s just poverty.”
Students in rural areas are often separated from their urban and suburban counterparts by more than just distance. Many live in communities that have faced decades of decline in the agricultural and manufacturing industries, and they grow up without money or opportunities. It can put them at a disadvantage in school—about half the children in rural schools fail to meet federal reading and math proficiency goals—and later, when they are choosing a college or a career.
That’s why many of HHMI’s science education grantees are focusing their outreach efforts on teachers and students from rural schools. Because long-distance travel is often out of the question, they are sending curricula and materials to rural teachers and finding research experiences within the rural communities.
“We recognize that it doesn’t do any good to tell rural teachers to take their kids to a great museum or somewhere else that would only be accessible in a city. There are special needs in a rural community,” says Robin Fuchs-Young, who directs an educational program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center campus in Smithville, Texas, that focuses, in part, on rural schools. “We realized we could not only help provide resources for our rural community but also work on building a model that better meets the needs of rural school systems.”