This Corporate Funder is Prioritizing STEM Shortfalls in Rural Areas

Philanthropy serving rural areas is lacking, and one thing that could really use some help is STEM education. One corporate foundation in Illinois just launched a pilot program to address the problem.

Improving STEM education in K-12 classrooms has become a huge priority for school districts, foundations, and corporate philanthropy. But one area where there’s still a big gap is in rural school districts. Unfortunately, rural areas are notoriously stiffed when it comes to philanthropy.

One recent exception is the foundation of a pharmaceutical company based in Illinois that just launched a pilot program devoted to improving STEM in rural communities. 

Students in the rural U.S. face unique or heightened obstacles when it comes to education in STEM subjects. Surveys on the issue have found that parents’ awareness regarding the subjects tends to be lower, and there are misconceptions about whether it’s important or relevant for students outside of cities, or those not planning to pursue advanced degrees.

Teachers feel similarly unprepared, and it can be tough to recruit outside of cities. Rural districts also feel budget constraints more severely than urban and suburban districts, which can limit resources for facilities and supplies. 

As a result, these kids fall behind even more than other students. And yet, these fields offer great untapped opportunities, as there are many local STEM-related job options in healthcare, agriculture, or construction, for example. 

So there’s a great opportunity. Unfortunately, philanthropy to benefit rural communities is lacking. It’s such a problem, in fact, that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack vented about it at the 2015 National Rural Assembly, calling out philanthropy for low support of rural areas. The USDA found that 6 to 7 percent of giving benefitted rural areas from 2005 to 2010, and Vilsack said that number has decreased since. 

Bruce Karmazin of the Lumpkin Family Foundation recently challenged philanthropy to step up its efforts, citing both attitudes and organizational capacity as reasons city-based funders don’t give enough to rural America. 

One recent bright spot, although not huge, is this new grantmaking program by the Astellas USA Foundation, the corporate philanthropy of a pharmaceutical company based in a Chicago suburb. It’s currently only a pilot program open to some parts of Illinois, but so far, it’s dedicating $300,000 to expand STEM access to underserved communities in rural areas.  

“Rural areas represent one of the greatest under-exploited opportunities for STEM education as a way to impact workforce development,” the RFP states (it’s open until August 15, 2016).

It’s not unheard of, as we’ve covered some rural STEM giving in Arizona through the AZ Science Foundation. There are also pockets of such support in various communities, some backed by local donors. The National Science Foundation also funds some rural STEM efforts. But it seems like this is a real opening for larger funders looking to make an impact.