It’s often challenging for rural public schools to raise money. When funds do come through, it can be a struggle spreading money among programs, personnel, and maintenance. A series of grants aims to improve STEM education at these schools.
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. These topics are emphasized increasingly in educational standards and the current jobs market. But STEM programs often require specialized equipment and training, which can get expensive.
To help rural schools acquire funding, Monsanto Company started a philanthropic grant program in 2011 called America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education. The grants are given by a Farmer Advisory Council of agricultural officials from around the nation. Mark Tuttle, a member of the Council and President of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau, says the process is competitive but begins at the community level.
“In order for a school district to even qualify, they have to be in a corn crop reporting district. So, for instance, if it was a school that was in Northern Idaho and had nothing but timber on it, that school wouldn’t even qualify,” he said. Corn districts were chosen because the crop is grown in all 50 states.
Tuttle says schools first have to be nominated by local farmers. Once that’s done, he says, the schools write grant applications which are reviewed by a group of educators in St. Louis. At this stage, they are going through between 800 and 1,000 grants.
“We’re giving away $10,000 and $20,000 grants, and we give away way over $2 million a year," Tuttle said. "We’re giving out several million dollars in grants, so there is a worthiness there, and they need to show that they’re committed to the projects."
Once the educators separate the wheat from the chaff, Tuttle and about 23 other board members examine what remains. He says the toughest part is deciding which grants are “worthy” of the money.
“There’s these school districts that are, for instance, out in South Dakota, that have literally just pennies to spend on their children each year and here they are looking for some science project they want to develop," he said. "And then you have schools that have lots of capital that still have an issue that has a need, and you want to fund that too."
That hasn’t stopped Illinois schools from winning 10 to 15 grants over the years. A well-known example is when Rochelle Middle School won a 2016 grant to purchase a 3-D printer. STEAM Lab teacher Vic Worthington’s class used it to build a prosthetic arm for Jake Hubbard, a farmer who lost his limb in an agricultural accident. Worthington says Monsanto was interested in how the printer would expand his students’ current projects.
“They were doing things as old-school as plumbing and electrical while doing things that are, like, super high tech, 21st century,” he said.
The success of the printer and prosthesis helped the school earn another grant in 2017. Worthington says he used that money to buy other equipment, such as hydraulic kits.
“They would take strips of cardboard and build it into working robotic arms. It simulates a small-scale excavator in a lot of ways, so it’s nice coming from a background working in agriculture where we were using a lot of heavy-duty machinery," he explained. "I can essentially put a lot of that together in my classroom in a way that’s going to be safe for the kids to use."
Other northern Illinois schools also have benefited from the grants. Sandwich High School earned one in 2016. Science Department Chair Beth Volpp says she used the money to buy sensors and a type of measuring computer from Vernier called LabQuest.
“It’s superb technology that allows you to plug in any type of probe, so we could look for the concentration of nitrates, we can look at pH, and all you have to do is switch out a probe into the LabQuest," she explained. "It senses it automatically, it graphs in real-time as we collect that data."
Volpp used the LabQuests to develop an ecology study unit where students measure water at the local creek. She says they enjoy the hands-on experience, and the unit has agricultural applications because it involves analyzing changes in environmental data.
"We are hoping to continue expanding this unit to be able to take a look at more urban and rural areas and be able to compare data. In addition, we are hoping to start working with the DeKalb County watershed program," she said.
Sandwich and Rochelle received their grants for specific programs, but some grants are meant to fulfill more basic needs. The Somonauk School District was awarded Grow Rural Education grants. The first came in 2013 and was used to purchase a set of classroom Chromebooks. Somonauk High School agriculture and biology teacher Toni Gabriel says it received a second grant in 2017.
"This year, we decided to utilize the money for things like microscopes, just glassware, because our students didn’t have access to just simple beakers and petri dishes, and some of those things," she said.
While not as flashy as the programs implemented in Rochelle and Sandwich, Gabriel says Somonauk’s grant can have just as much of an impact on local education.
"In a small school like ours, we don’t have facilities to compete with larger districts, and we also don’t have supplies," she said, "and so to be able to request money from outside sources really is what allows our students to kind of be competitive in the industry."
While these specific schools have benefited greatly from the grants, Tuttle says Illinois is far from the only beneficiary.
"There’s probably just as many kids in Kansas benefiting as kids in Illinois, as kids in Indiana, or kids in Florida," he said. "It’s just that there’s more schools in the Corn Belt that are applying for the grants."
The Monsanto Fund is currently accepting nominations for this year’s grants, and Tuttle says farmers have until April 2 to submit theirs to the company’s website. As with previous years, he hopes the grants can help improve STEM education for rural schools across the country.