President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan and Governor Tony Evers’ budget pledges for the “Year of Broadband” stand ready to fulfill Wisconsin’s promise to extend the Internet to the state’s rural communities. But when the money starts flowing, it will be vital for lawmakers to distribute these funds in such a way that all of our children are educated, especially when it comes to science.
Broadband can no longer be seen as a luxury that powers social media and other optional ways to let the time pass. There is a need to ensure that our children are educated and able to participate in the modern world of work. Still, around 400,000 rural Wisconsinians, nearly 25% of the rural population, lack broadband, which puts us behind most of our neighboring states and below the national average.
Just as the rural electrification law of the 1930s revolutionized the lives of people in our state, we must seize this moment now to make equally significant changes by promoting nationwide access to the Internet.
TIED TOGETHER:Electricity changed rural America almost a century ago. Millions of people on farms and in small towns are now in dire need of broadband.
TIED TOGETHER:In Kentucky’s “Silicon Holler” and Wisconsin’s Northwoods, high-speed internet creates jobs and changes lives
TIED TOGETHER:With bad data, poor requirements and little oversight, massive public spending has still not solved the rural internet access problem
Unfortunately, at the beginning of the debates on how to spend this money, we don’t have all the right people at the table. The Madison bodies speak primarily to the big telecommunications companies, but it is they who are slow to push broadband “the last mile” because it is not profitable.
Widely absent from the talks are regional and local telecommunications companies with local roots who are doing everything they can to ensure broadband reaches our most isolated communities. For example, in Bayfield County in the northwest corner of the state, a small local telecommunications company called Norvado made it one of the best connected counties in Wisconsin. Unless we can ensure that our local and regional telecommunications companies have the same opportunities to access this money as the big ones, it will be difficult to fully connect in the rural areas.
We also need to ensure that internet packages are affordable and properly maintained for lower income rural households, which can be expensive in sparsely populated areas of Wisconsin.
The Internet, of course, helps young people no matter what they are studying by exposing them to new resources beyond the scope of their local libraries. But science presents unique challenges for educators in rural communities.
Beyond basic biology or physics, science quickly becomes very complex. No matter how dedicated it is, it is difficult, if not impossible, for teachers in small schools to help students with challenging science projects or master high-level courses like genetics or cell biology. But with the Internet, the best-trained teachers in the country can be beamed directly into the classrooms of ambitious students.
One of the best examples of the limits and potential of broadband for science is our collaboration with the Morgridge Institute for Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Every summer, Morgridge hosts a series of rural summer science camps that introduce students from isolated settings to some of the world’s best scientists who guide them on cool experiments on campus. You are exposed to exciting ideas and the joy of science. Most importantly, children leave these camps with the confidence that they know that “I can keep up at this level”.
We switched to online camps during last summer’s pandemic, but this limited access to students with broadband at home. This summer we developed a hybrid approach where students can meet from home in a classroom with internet access. As broadband becomes more prevalent, we hope to build on this program to develop more hybrid learning opportunities so that students can pursue their interests long after the week of face-to-face teaching. Kits are even provided with the necessary materials to mail to students and their schools so they can follow teachers online.
If we give our rural children wider access to the latest science, they and our state will be helped in the years to come. People who work in agriculture rely on scientific knowledge to continue to be effective stewards of the land. Greater connectivity also promises to end the brain drain from farmland by creating new opportunities for children to return to after graduation, possibly to pursue entrepreneurial ideas and connect their businesses around the world – a true life cycle.
Drive past a school in a rural area on a Sunday evening and you’ll see the lights come on as our dedicated teachers prepare for a new week. We must do our part and stop arguing, putting aside self-interest, and making broadband available to every budding scientist in every corner of the state.
Kim Kaukl is the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance. Email: [email protected]