It’s Time to Bring Computer Science Education to All Utah Students

By Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox and Aaron Skonnard, Founding Board Member of Silicon Slopes, CEO of Pluralsight and Pluralsight One Board Chair

EDITOR’S NOTE: As we celebrate Computer Science Education Week, we want to exhibit our support of the collective progress we’re making to bring computer science to every school in Utah. Silicon Slopes has appointed board member Aaron Skonnard to lead the strategy for this initiative for the broader Silicon Slopes community through its social enterprise, Pluralsight One.

Utah’s technology industry is thriving, with headlines and op-eds in recent years declaring the state a “high-tech mecca” rivaling even Silicon Valley. And yet, according to LinkedIn, this job growth has also led Salt Lake City to be among a handful of U.S. cities where the skills gap around tech jobs is now widening.

Today, there are nearly 5,000 open computing jobs in Utah—jobs that come with an average salary of over $81,000, nearly double the state’s average salary. But there are not enough qualified workers in Utah to fill many of these positions.

This workforce gap is the result of an educational infrastructure that hasn’t always kept pace with Utah’s—and the country’s—rapidly evolving workforce demand. The statistics are startling: Right now, only 16 percent of our state’s high schools offer intermediate and advanced computer science. In 2016, just six new teachers graduated from Utah universities prepared to teach these subjects. Fewer AP exams are taken in computer science than in any other STEM subject area. Surprisingly, only 16 percent of high schools with AP programs offer an AP Computer Science course. Last year, less than 0.8 percent of all AP exams taken by students were in computer science; that’s just 376 exams out of 43,569 total AP exams taken among Utah’s 184,000 high schoolers.

Educating our students in computer science is our collective challenge. We can’t put this immense and complex challenge on the shoulders of educators alone. This is a statewide issue, and one that Gov. Herbert and the private sector are committed to addressing. We must all collaborate to create meaningful and lasting change.

As we celebrate Computer Science Education Week Dec. 3-9, there’s no better time to collectively redouble our efforts to expand computer science education for our students. From agriculture to manufacturing, all sectors are impacted by technology today. The future of these jobs will also require more and more employees to have a background in computer science. In order for our state’s youth to have equal access to future opportunities, and for Utah to compete both nationally and globally, we need to ensure every student in the state has access to high-quality computer science education.

The current picture may seem bleak, but there’s also good news to share. Over the last few years, we’ve made great progress. In 2016, Senate Bill 93 provided funding for teachers to earn computer science endorsements, and in 2017, Senate Bill 190 created the Computing Partnerships Grants program to develop K-16 computer science pathways. These are essential developments, but they are frankly not enough to solve the problem.

Recognizing the depth and complexity of the needs at hand, more than 15,000 people gathered last year in Salt Lake City for Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, where more than 1,200 business leaders signed a letter of support for universal computer science education for Utah’s students. In the months following the summit, we’ve made incredible progress toward our shared goal.

Through the Governor’s Tech Pathways program, industry and education leaders have partnered to better align school curriculum to industry needs, while providing more work-based learning opportunities for students. The Utah State Board of Education also created a task force to examine access to computer science courses in the state, and approved a set of recommendations designed to make progress toward the goal of each student across the state having access to computer science courses. These are not isolated actions—they are part of a system of change that is in motion; one that is taking shape more quickly and dynamically than ever before through the power of cross-sector collaboration.

Through these coalitions we are tackling the need to enable future educators to teach these courses, as well as help existing teachers learn how to integrate computer science and computer science principles into other subjects.

To this end, state leaders are announcing a dynamic partnership with Pluralsight One, the social enterprise of local technology learning platform Pluralsight, to include its computer science offerings as recommended coursework under the State Board of Education’s computer science endorsements. These online courses remove cost, time and transit barriers, allowing teachers to more easily fulfill certification requirements for computer science instruction and further develop their computer science skills beyond traditional college and university options.

Today marks another huge step forward in this effort. Gov. Herbert’s new budget proposal introduced $3.9M for Talent Ready Utah grants to support expansion of computer science course offerings in secondary schools. The budget also includes an ambitious target to offer at least three unique computer science classes in every school in the state.

We join the three other states—Alabama, Missouri and Montana—whose governors made a commitment to computer science earlier this week at the Computer Science Education Week kick-off in Seattle, following a keynote address by Melinda Gates.

With the current momentum and support of Gov. Herbert, the State Board of Education, legislature, and an aligned and engaged private sector, we have arrived at an incredible moment for Utah. And we don’t have time to waste. Every time a graduating class leaves our K-12 system, we need to make sure they’re equipped with the skills needed to pursue their dreams and access the jobs of the future. This proposed budget, with committed funding and built-in priorities around computer science, will give us the opportunity to ensure Utah truly becomes a “high-tech mecca”.

We must keep moving forward, working together to create a state strategic plan that guarantees implementation of this important vision. Together, we can ensure that every K-12 student in Utah has access to high quality computer science education, and soon.

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