The Next Generation of STEM Leaders Hails From … Nebraska? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Next Generation of STEM Leaders Hails From … Nebraska?

The Next Generation of STEM Leaders Hails From … Nebraska?

By Michelle Bruton


Because tomorrow’s innovators may never set foot in Silicon Valley. 

By Michelle Bruton

It often feels like a new tech startup promising to make our lives better and easier launches every day. Hudl aims to provide analysis tools for coaches and athletes. Alternative payment platform Sezzle helps consumers pay online merchants in interest-free installments. C2FO created the first market for working capital. But these companies aren’t based in the Bay Area or New York City, as you’d expect. Respectively, they’re headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska; Minneapolis; and Kansas City, Missouri. 

“Silicon Prairie” is a term that has become shorthand for how the Midwest is disrupting the grip on the tech industry previously held almost exclusively by coastal cities. Tech companies are increasingly being lured to the rolling plains by everything from lower costs of living to higher quality of life. But if tech companies are going to continue setting up shop in the middle of the country, they’re going to need to draw from a workforce similarly interested in putting down roots in the heartland rather than in California or New York. 

More and more, that workforce is materializing very close to home. We’re now seeing the first generation come of age in the Midwest knowing that a tech career is within arm’s reach. In fact:

Students in Omaha, Nebraska, are outpacing the national average for computer science tutoring requests by a factor of 14.

A recent study conducted by Varsity Tutors, a private online tutoring company based in St. Louis with more than 40,000 tutors and covering more than 1,000 subjects, found that the appetite for science, technology, engineering and math tutoring in Omaha outpaces that of any other location in the country. U.S. Department of Education data from 2015 found that fourth graders in Nebraska — kids who will be in eighth grade in 2019 — far outperformed most students in the country. Nebraska trailed only New Hampshire, Virginia and Vermont for science achievement in education. Also scoring ahead of the national public, according to the survey: students in North Dakota, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas and Michigan.   

While the San Francisco Bay Area saw a 3 percent decrease in STEM tutoring from 2017–18, eight of the largest Midwestern cities, including Cincinnati and Indianapolis, saw growth in the sector year-over-year that was more than twice the national average. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of Advanced Placement student test takers in Iowa taking the computer science exam increased by 28 percent. In Kansas, it increased 127.5 percent. 


The subjects STEM-oriented students want to learn more about, according to Varsity Tutors CEO Chuck Cohn, are artificial intelligence and machine learning, programming languages, robotics, biology and mathematics. From fourth quarter of 2017 to first quarter of 2018, Varsity Tutors saw 12 times the requests for C++ tutoring. 

“We started seeing a large number of sales in certain Midwest cities,” Cohn says. “Sure enough, the trends related to STEM education in the Midwest were way over-indexed, which was really interesting and not something I would have anticipated.” Varsity Tutors would have over-indexed in New York, San Francisco and other traditional tech hubs. But, as Cohn points out, Midwest cities are recognizing the potential to participate in the tech economy even if they’re not in a tech stronghold.

Maybe we should have all anticipated this trend. A whopping 25 percent of the nation’s computer science graduates hail from the Midwest. And once you look at cost-of-living data, tech’s Midwest expansion makes sense. According to the 2018 C2ER cost-of-living index, the average software engineer in Omaha makes $84,000 annually compared with his or her counterpart in San Francisco, who makes $124,000. But housing is 75 percent cheaper in Omaha, and utilities and groceries are each 25 percent less expensive. 

Of particular interest is the fact that the demand Varsity Tutors is seeing for STEM tutoring is diverse across racial and gender lines. “I’ve worked with enough students to say it’s roughly equal on gender breakdown,” says Chase McCloskey, a mathematician and private tutor with Varsity Tutors. Adds Cohn, “The gender stereotype associated with being a programmer is less than even five years ago. We’ve seen that in math and robotics tutoring.”

To make sure that students from all backgrounds have access to the kind of STEM foundation that can lead to high-paying jobs, Varsity Tutors partners with schools to provide scholarships and is working on providing more live courses that spread the cost out over 10 to 20 students in addition to one-on-one instruction.

Sixty-five percent of children in primary school will one day hold jobs that don’t yet exist, according to the World Economic Forum. And parents are becoming increasingly aware that computer science is a crucial skill that will allow their children to pursue those new career tracks, says Cohn. They may be onto something: According to a 2018 report from Microsoft, “Closing the STEM Gap,” only 36 percent of girls will, of their own volition and without parental encouragement, pursue computer science. 

“Technology has this feedback loop: It makes it easier for students anywhere and everywhere to learn STEM, and it makes tech better because they then possibly work in these fields and create innovation,” says McCloskey. But these fields still have massive racial and gender gaps to close. According to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center, though women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, they are severely underrepresented in STEM fields of engineering (14 percent), computer science (25 percent) and physical science (39 percent). In fact, the percentage of women in computer occupations has decreased since 1990, when it was at 32 percent. And though Blacks and Hispanics make up 27 percent of the workforce as of 2016, they account for just 16 percent of those employed in a STEM occupation. 

Varsity Tutors isn’t the only firm that has swooped in to fill the gap — it’s joined by platforms StudyGate, TutorMe, Skooli, edX and Midwest-based Wyzant.

In the end, Amazon may not have chosen a Midwestern city for its new headquarters, but as the cost of living continues to rise in tech’s strongholds, more companies can be expected to look to the vast space and potential the Midwest offers. And when they do, an entire generation of future STEM leaders will be waiting for them.

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