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Crossing the Continental Divide

Okay. Bad news first.  (Hang with me on this. It’s an American tale, which means that there’s always the possibility of a happy ending.)

Gregg Cannady, D.M.A. stands in front of a high tech monitor as he talks about connecting rural and urban students together in STEM research.  (Photo credit: Denver Post)Even the most optimistic among us will have to admit that, the way things are right now, the only thing united about our nation is the name.  There are any number of things that divide us. Right and left. White and black.  Rich and poor. Take your pick.

But there’s one “us vs them” that’s been getting a lot of press lately, and it strikes close to home. Literally.  Yup, you guessed it.  Rural and urban.

It’s not exactly a new phenomenon.  And it sure isn’t news.  The great divide between those who live in the country and those who live in the city can be traced back to the years following the Civil War with not a lot of “we and us” between then and now.  That’s a long time for this family feud to be going on.  These are some pretty old conflicts with roots that run pretty deep.

And let’s face it.  The baby boomer generation hasn’t exactly done anything to make the situation better. In fact, the rhetoric and resentment—on both sides—is heating up more than ever. Meanwhile, the divide is wider than it’s been in years.  One might even describe it as the war between the states, and if that doesn’t sober us up, well, it should.

Remember the early 90s? Those of us who were around at the end of the age of B.I. (Before Internet) might recall how the internet was first presented.  It was going to connect the world.  No more borders, no more divisions.  We were going to be able to instantaneously speak with people around the world with as much ease as calling Great Aunt Mildred on her birthday, and the conversation was guaranteed to be a lot more interesting.  It seemed that the world was about to enter a new age of enlightenment complete with a virtual rendition of Kumbaya.  By 1993, five million people were on line worldwide.

Well, those techie gurus who promised the evolution of society should have, perhaps, turned off their blue screens and mingled with the masses a little more because, harsh as this sounds (and it is harsh), we may have redefined how we can communicate with each other but what we have to say hasn’t “evolved” a bit.

Before long, the internet walked into board rooms across the country, pulled up a chair, sat down and the marketplace—including future jobs in that marketplace—was never the same. It was progress with a capital “P”.

Meanwhile, progress stopped at the city limits. Decades would pass before rural America would finally join the conversation—all of them—and it’s been a game of catch up ever since.  The problem is that the goal keeps moving further and further away.

And it’s not just a divide anymore.  It’s a big, gaping chasm large enough to swallow up a whole generation of kids who don’t have connections and all that implies.  Unfortunately, it’s not so big that the insults hurled from one side to the other and back again can’t be heard.

But…there are some people who are not willing to let the story end there.

Now the good news.  (Phew.  About dang time.)

Students from Eads High School and their instructor use video conferencing software to collaborate with students at the STEM School Highlands Ranch during a recent collaboration.Eads High School, under the tutelage of Mr. Wagner and Principal Barnett, recently became part of a program that may be the start of building a much needed bridge. 

The brain child of Dr. Gregg Cannaday, the program is designed to connect urban communities with rural communities.  Cannaday, who is a cousin to Dawn James, EHS teacher extraordinaire, grew up in rural Colorado and understands firsthand the importance of connecting these groups in a number of ways and at a number of levels.

Two groups of high school students are involved: 8 Juniors whom Barnett describes as being “very vocal, excellent students who have strong personalities and are high achieving” and are in the Biology II class at Eads High School and roughly the same number of kids with presumably the same characteristics who attend Highlands Ranch STEM High School outside of Denver. 

The goal of the program?  To connect.

Many of the schools along the Front Range—not all, just mainly those schools in the suburbs and more affluent urban areas—have a great deal of technology available for students’ use.  (Think of a sale page for a place like Best Buy.  Yes, that kind of “great deal of technology”.) Cannaday developed the program to use the urban schools’ technology to provide access to that technology to rural schools who don’t have those same resources available.  Basically, the set up allows the students at Highlands Ranch to connect—visually and online—with students at Eads in real time communication. 

The focus of the class involves STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  Every single person, group and professional journal that studies those careers that have the brightest future with the greatest opportunity for employment at a very good salary in the state of Colorado all say the same thing:  the future is in STEM. In other words, those students who show proficiency and are college educated in those four fields are—and will be for beyond the foreseeable future—the same people who will have the market wide open to them once they enter the workforce.

Every year, there are an increasing number of schools along the Front Range that are shifting their entire orientation to using methods that involve STEM.  And it doesn’t start with high school.  It starts with kindergarten.  The United States is way behind other countries like China, South Korea and India; if we want to be competitive—i.e. the guys who are creating and selling to others versus the guys who are buying what other countries create—school systems need to get their STEM in gear.  So to speak.

The class in Cannaday’s program is given a topic to research, discuss, explore and then innovate—i.e. create—technology that could realistically be produced by one of the companies located on the Front Range.  Just to emphasize, this is not some academic exercise.  The goal is for the students—from both schools—to work together via their online connection to actually create a product that could be put into production. 

But, in his genius, Dr. Cannaday doesn’t stop there.  His focus is on making the class a relevant experience, meaning that he and other colleagues actually involve specific companies who are most likely to be interested in the product that the innovation process creates. 

This is invaluable; students from STEM schools on the Front Range are getting greater and greater access to these companies.  Rural students are not.  This program changes that;  it provides rural students—Eads High School students—the opportunity to connect with Front Range companies in a setting where that company learns about the student and his or her capabilities while still in high school. 

The topic the students are researching involves the sustainability of wildlife and was chosen for several reasons.  For the EHS students, the existence and sustainability of wildlife is a part of their everyday existence and has been for the entirety of their lives growing up in the country; for the Highlands Ranch students, it’s a subject of emotional importance and is part of a larger system of values they feel about deeply.

However, it’s also a subject that provides “equal footing” among both groups.

The Eads students are a wealth of knowledge about wildlife and animal behavior with experience gained through lives spent hunting, farming and ranching.  In fact, one of the EHS students is a wildlife enthusiast and has been studying, tracking and making observations about wildlife on his own for several years.

In contrast, the STEM Highlands Ranch students have very little—if any—firsthand experience with wildlife.  They do, however, know a great deal about the various forms of technology that could be used from drones to 360 cameras to specific types of software and others.

Both groups come to the table (virtual, though it may be) with something of value to teach and something of value to learn.

It’s within that interaction that, given the current situation, one of the most profound types of connection occurs. 

These two groups of students are a microcosm of what’s happening across the country.  Two different cultures with different backgrounds, different perspectives, different priorities and belief systems given a goal of working together on a common problem. 

And what’s needed to solve a common problem?  Common ground.  It’s hard to get anything figured out when there’s chasm, an enormous divide, between them.  Before they make any progress, before they can create anything, they have to find a way to connect.  That does not mean to eliminate the differences between them because elimination of differences means someone—or both someones—have to give up something that could very well be at the core of who they are. 
This program requires these students—these kids—to do something that the majority of adults in this country seem to be unable to do.  It requires them to be willing to learn from each other, to respect that they are different, to use those differences to solve a problem and, hopefully in doing so, to learn that their common ground may be much more common than they ever would have otherwise realized.

Genius.  Absolute genius.

The program came to Eads through the efforts of Betsy Barnett. (Of course, did we really expect anything less?) Barnett heard about what Dr. Cannaday was doing and contacted him directly, requesting that Eads be involved.  Cannaday was more than receptive. She then selected Mr. Wagner—the science teacher whom Barnett describes as being “broad minded and embracing of new challenges and ideas”—and he was immediately on board, as well. Wagner has been directing the experience on this end ever since.

The class has been held three times.  Has it gone smoothly? Not completely, but then one would question the validity of the program if it did.  After all, these young adults are part of a larger society where the ability to work together and find common ground with people who have different values and perspectives is far, far from abundant. 

Unfortunately, there are only a few more classes before the school year ends. 

No generation wants their children to inherit a world that is less than the one they inherited themselves.  But, as the saying goes, it is what it is.  Our generation is leaving a world to our children with challenges we created and for which we, sadly, appear to have no solutions. 

So, maybe we do the next best thing.  Maybe the inheritance we leave to them includes the tools to build their own new world.  And, trusting that the wisdom will exist to continue if not expand upon this program and others like it in the future, we can leave them something else.

The hope to believe that solutions are indeed possible.
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