By Dr. Jem Spectar, President, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown
Johnstown, Pa., is a fitting symbol for the triumphs and travails of rural America and on-going efforts to revitalize our community are yielding some insights that may be useful to other “Johnstowns” across America.
On the bright side, these communities are generally characterized by unwavering patriotism (contributing disproportionately to the heroic 1% that shoulder the burden of the common defense), unflagging resilience and an enviable great work ethic. Unfortunately, the Johnstowns of rural America are also driven by the onslaught of vanishing manufacturing jobs, demographic decline, higher rates of unemployment, poverty, ill-health, opioid abuse, blight, crime, violence and insufficient governmental investment.
These challenges have created opportunities for universities in rural America to play a more focused role in the resurgence of rural America. A key element of that revival is preparing the workforce for an increasingly complex digital and information-based economy through a mix of approaches.
University-community partnerships should include digital literacy as a central goal to prepare for a more complex information-based economy. Institutions should also take a look at their curricula to ensure that besides the traditional competencies in critical thinking, problem-solving and communications, they are improving advanced digital literacy.
For example, through its CODE for Commonwealth and Country initiative, Pitt-Johnstown is collaborating with area K-12 schools to increase coding opportunities, including through the development of related after school programs. Likewise, Pitt-Johnstown and other community organizations supported a local high school robotics team, Robotic Doges, that sailed through challenging meets to win first place in a statewide robotics competition and fourth place in a national contest! We are currently slated to host the next regional FIRST Robotics.
Furthermore, universities should partner with businesses to upgrade the digital literacy of their employees, and coding skills should be an essential element of professional development. In addition, universities in rural America should serve as critical catalysts and incubators for technology-based entrepreneurial startups by catapulting them forward with research expertise, micro-grants and other logistical support.
On the bright side, these communities are generally characterized by unwavering patriotism (contributing disproportionately to the heroic 1% that shoulder the burden of the common defense), unflagging resilience and an enviable great work ethic.
Universities should help increase awareness about the urgency of developing a more digitally literate rural workforce, including through advocacy and support for revised curricula and funding of computer science, engineering and other STEM programs for a technology-driven economy. Much as institutions helped increase knowledge about vaccinations to immunize children from future maladies, they should sound the alarm about the dangers of unpreparedness in the face of the rising tsunami of future technological shockwaves. Universities should urge lawmakers to follow the example of Virginia in requiring the teaching of computer science and computational thinking, including computer coding.
Working in collaboration with local civic organizations, universities in rural America can play a vital role in catalyzing the development of a new digital economy. The revival of rural America is a matter of great urgency because failure would compromise our national prosperity, general welfare and eventually the stability and sustainability of our democracy. America’s “Johnstowns” are merely canaries in the coal mine which if unheeded would result in great calamity for our body politic and grave harm to our national fabric.
America’s universities that have powered the great innovations that took humans to the moon, developed the internet and propelled the Voyager spacecraft to interstellar space have a new and equally urgent role to play: help provide leadership in collaboration with partners in their localities to pave way for the resurgence of rural America.