Silicon Slopes: Utah has Opportunity to be at the Forefront of Tech Education
Salt Lake City—The second annual Silicon Slopes Tech Summit showcased what many of us already know: that the tech industry in Utah is booming. And while we should, as a state, be proud of what our tech companies have accomplished, we can also look at the opportunities that are rising with tech tide and address them—before those opportunities become insurmountable challenges.
In Utah, there are about 4,000 open tech jobs, with an average salary of $81,000, said Alice Steinglass, president of Code.org during Friday’s general session. But there are only 400 students in public Utah high schools currently that can take AP Computer Science (CS), preparing them for a career in STEM fields, or igniting their passion in CS in general.
“That’s a challenge that we need to solve to give these students an opportunity for the jobs here in Utah,” she said.
The lack of diversity in the tech field is well documented, said Steinglass, but having opportunities to take AP CS in high school helps invite in female or minority students that might otherwise feel alienated by the subject. It’s intimidating, she continued, to be, for instance, the only female in a 500-student classroom of introduction CS in college. Girls and minorities are much more likely to brave that if they’ve already taken CS in high school.
“The lack of diversity is evident everywhere you look in the software workforce. The numbers vary depending on which study, but it’s roughly a quarter or less of people working in the software workforce are women. … There are challenges in every piece of the puzzle,” she said.
Every sector is trying struggling to fill computer science jobs, said Steinglass. And nine of ten parents polled have indicated they want their children to learn computer science in school, she continued. If Utah wants to be a continuing leader in the tech field, computer science must be taught more broadly in schools.
“Every student in every school should have the opportunity to take a high-quality CS class,” said Steinglass. “We believe that by reaching these underrepresented students, rural students, students from all over the country and all over the state here, we could change the face of computer science and give kids an opportunity that they don’t have today.”
How? As a first pass, Steinglass referred people to try Hour of Code, a grassroots movement fueled by 200 partners and 100,000 teachers in 196 countries. It’s one hour of a computer science project designed for anyone to try, available on Code.org.
“I can tell you that computer science is fun, and I can tell you it’s cool to build your own app. But it’s different when you actually get to try it. Students who thought, ‘I can’t do that, it’s not for me’—when they actually get to try it, they’re way more likely to think that they want to do this,” she said, adding that high school girls were the most likely to change their mind about computer science after a single hour of code.
In Utah, there’s been several Hour of Code events, including a large one local tech company Pluralsight put on in 2017. Students have taken to computer science in huge ways, said Steinglass—most students rank computer science as their favorite subject behind the arts.
“They can unleash their creativity, they can build things! Of course they’re going to love it. Maybe dance may be more fun, but computer science is pretty close,” laughed Steinglass. “But it doesn’t help if they love it, if their parents want them to take it, if there’s opportunity in the industry—none of that matters if the schools don’t actually teach it.”
This disproportionately affects poor students, rural students, and students from underrepresented populations, said Steinglass. In order to make change, the educational system in Utah needs to change on a fundamental level. Computer science should be treated as a core piece of school curriculum, and an infrastructure of support to teach teachers computer science needs to be built. History, art, science teachers—any teacher can learn some measure of computer science to incorporate it into their classroom, said Steinglass.
“We have to make our educational system treat computer science like first-class subject,” she said. Code.org built a curriculum to teach teachers computer science at a beginning levels, as well as workshops that can help those teachers meet others and get a support network in place. The workshops run over the summer and Code.org has had over 60,000 teachers join its workshops.
Code.org’s computer science platform is also the most popular today, which has everything from elementary school level CS concepts all the way to the AP high school level. The tools to teach and for students and teachers to learn, she said, are already in place.
The next step is to change district, state and federal policies, said Steinglass. Utah is leading the way with Gov. Herbert’s IT Pathways Program, but more can be done. “We’ve seen that when you have the right policies in place—things like teacher certifications, making CS count for graduation requirements, funding to support teachers going to professional development—that it makes a huge difference in terms of the opportunities in that state.”
To build support for this cause, Aaron Skonnard, CEO of Pluralsight, has crafted a letter of support for expanding K-12 computer science education in the state. The letter can be found at: https://www.pluralsightone.org/utah.