Designing technical assistance that supports innovation and innovators
How the Rural Tech Project has created time and space for convening, collaboration, and connection.
Employment growth in technology careers is outpacing other occupations, and across industries, many of the fastest-growing, high-wage career opportunities will require advanced technology skills. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the tech industry will add more than 600,000 new jobs over the next decade — and many of those jobs are not location-dependent. Rural communities can be a source of tech talent, and skills-based distance learning can help create opportunities in underserved areas. But it’s not easy to launch and sustain new technology education programs that are customized for students and local needs. And in rural communities, schools have less access to networking opportunities and tech industry connections than schools in larger metro areas. To build technology career pathways in rural America, educators need meaningful support and accessible resources.
In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education invited rural high schools and local educational agencies to propose technology education programs that use competency-based distance learning. The Rural Tech Project, designed and produced by Luminary Labs, received 63 proposals from teams across 34 states. Entrants proposed programs focusing on a range of technology skills — from computer science and cybersecurity to robotics and aviation. Five finalist teams were recommended by a judging panel. Each team received a $100,000 cash prize and progressed to the second phase of the challenge.
To bring new ideas to life and make innovative education programs a reality, teams would need technical assistance — targeted support to close the gap between concept and viability — throughout the two-year pilot. Technical assistance isn’t one-size-fits-all: Some programs need a lighter touch, while some need heavier hands-on support. Even in a small cohort, each team will have different strengths and needs. Effective challenge design needs to balance individual support and group resources. In this case, technical assistance would also need to adjust to the duration of Phase 2; schools would be implementing and iterating on their programs over a two-year period, and would need ongoing support.
Luminary Labs designed a virtual accelerator that kicked off in early 2021. From January to July 2021, teams developed detailed program plans and built partnerships before launching their programs in the 2021-2022 academic year. In addition to customized assistance, expert mentorship, and access to virtual resources, each team has also received support from a Community Engagement Manager, who assists with on-the-ground setup, implementation, and evaluation of each program.
Providing technical assistance virtually and locally has made resources accessible to teams in five different states. But halfway through the two-year pilot, we saw a need to bring teams together in person to strengthen their connections with each other and with expert mentors. In June, finalists traveled to New York City for a two-day convening. The in-person event created time and space for focus and reflection, allowing teams to look back on their first year of implementation and plan for a second year of iteration and improvement. (Considering the intensity educators have experienced over the past two years, it was especially helpful to offer an environment that felt removed from their everyday responsibilities.) In addition, bringing finalists together in person made competing teams feel like more of a cohort; the cooperative and collaborative atmosphere of the convening encouraged teams to share ideas, inspire each other, and deepen their learning with program leaders from the U.S. Department of Education and expert mentors.
During the 2022-2023 academic year, finalist teams will refine their programs and create sustainability plans. Next summer, teams will document outcomes and learnings in a final submission; a judging panel will then recommend one grand-prize winner to receive an additional $100,000. The Rural Tech Project will compile insights from all finalist teams and share lessons learned as a resource for other communities.