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The City Journals

New laws and programs prepare Utah students for tech careers

May 30, 2019 03:25PM ● By Jet Burnham

Students at Real Salt Lake Academy High School use top-of-the-line equipment to graduate with career-ready skills. (Photo courtesy RSLAHS)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Are the graduates of Utah’s 429 high schools prepared to fill the jobs of the state’s growing tech industry?

“There are more than 1,500 open software development jobs in Utah right now across all industries,” said House Representative John Knotwell. “Utah's economy continues to grow at a rapid pace fueled in large part by a young, motivated and creative workforce. And while these things are great, there is more that we can and we must do.”

Knotwell sponsored the Computer Science Grant Act to provide computer science instruction to every student K–12. With the signing of the bill, Gov. Gary Herbert appropriated $3.9 million to make three different computer science courses available in all Utah schools by 2022.

“This bill had more co sponsors than any bill in our 2019 legislative session, a clear signal that the time for this issue is now,” said Knotwell. “These courses help young people hone essential skills like problem-solving, collaboration and creativity—skills which are desperately needed in our workforce today for employers to compete in an ever-changing marketplace.”

Currently, there are 19 computer science courses offered, (33, including IT courses) in Utah schools. Digital Literacy and Digital Studies are required courses for secondary students. The Utah State Board of Education Computer Science Task Force is recommending more elective computer science courses as well as the integration of computer science concepts (problem-solving, logic, mathematical reasoning and coding) into all aspects of classroom teaching for all ages. They also recommend changing keyboarding skills to a requirement for fifth-grade students instead of just recommended as it is now.

Industry leaders have committed to match the state’s funding for a total of roughly $8 million this year going toward that goal, said Knotwell. Funding will provide training for teachers as well equipment such as 3-D printers, robotics equipment, smart boards and computers in the classrooms.

But computer science is not the only industry in need of qualified employees; there is growth in all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) industries. The Utah’s Governor’s Office of Economic Development reports there are 4,201local tech companies, 1,074 in the life science industry and 944 in the aerospace industry all in need of qualified employees. 

Last year Herbert signed S.B. 104 Talent Development and Retention Strategy, committing $2.5 million for debt relief for local college graduates who choose to employ their STEM skills in-state.

Industry and community organizations such as Talent Ready Utah, Utah Technology Council, Silicone Slopes and the Utah STEM Action Center are stepping up to prepare young people to fill Utah’s STEM jobs.

On April 29, the Utah STEM Action Center teamed up with Boeing and Tallo to host Utah’s inaugural STEM Signing Day, an event celebrating high school seniors dedicated to pursuing college degrees in STEM subjects. Forty-six students were invited to the State Capitol to commit to pursue careers in biology, aerospace, engineering, medical, bio technology, chemistry, etc.

Davis High graduate Ryan Johnson committed to study aerospace engineering. While growing up, his family had a homemade rocket launcher. 

“We’d always just build rockets,” he said. “I’ve always just liked seeing how high and how far we could launch them.”

Sasha Singh, a graduate of Beehive Science and Technology Academy, who plans to be an orthodontist, said her interest in science was inspired by her ninth-grade biology teacher.

“She really got me interested in the human body, and since then, I’ve been taking a bunch of bio classes,” she said. 

Utah STEM Foundation Director Allison Spencer, told the select students they should be celebrated just as much as athletes on their signing day. 

“Though we’re not giving you a multimillion dollar contract—though I sure wish we could because I feel like it’s that important—you’re setting an example for the rest of the students in the state of Utah,” she said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson told the students they are fortunate to have support and opportunities to explore science and technology, which she did not have as a young girl.

“I’ve been very passionate as the state superintendent to ensure that our students have all sorts of opportunities around STEM,” she said.

Many schools offer STEM opportunities through family night activities, school clubs and programs such as First Lego League and Girls Who Code. Others have taken a STEM approach to everyday instruction.

REAL career preparation:

At Real Salt Lake Academy High School, a free public school in Herriman, students commit to STEM-based career paths while still in high school. They choose a course of study in medical, sports business, digital media, engineering or mathematics. 

Students take a variety of classes for elective credits until they commit to their career pathway, usually by their junior year.

“By the time they start focusing and moving up on the chain, most of them are all there because that's what they actually want to do or have an interest in that idea of somewhere in that career field,” said digital media instructor Jennifer Tighe.

Principal Grant Stock said while other area high schools offer similar CTE pathways, at RSLAHS it is required for each student to choose and follow a pathway. This is because RSL team owner Dell Loy Hansen is as passionate about education as he is about soccer and wants his players to be prepared for life with marketable skills.

“More kids come here to start for soccer than they do for the STEM,” said Stock. “But they get here and many of them begin to realize that there's these careers that they can be successful in. We see a lot of kids just take advantage and run with that.”

Some soccer players even start to find they have a passion for something besides soccer.

“They really get excited about the STEM, and then they begin to change some of their focus,” said Stock. His son signed up for digital media classes and found they conflicted with his soccer schedule. “He pushed his soccer to do an after-school program so he can do this coursework.”

While many students are soccer players, enrollment is open to anyone. Local students are drawn to the small class sizes and availability of top-of-the-line equipment. RSL provides all students with a Chromebook and access to Mac and PC computers, digital drawing tablets, digital cameras, video cameras, 3-D printers and current software.

Digital media is one of the most popular pathways with students.

“They like the interactiveness, and obviously, most kids like to play on the computer,” said Leland Basquin, school academic counselor. “But what they're doing is really focused, and they are projects they enjoy to do,” 

Students learn the basics their freshman year and progress from 2-D to 3-D modeling to animation until they are creating comprehensive video games for their senior year portfolios.

“There's just such a growth in the STEM field; these pathways prepare the students for a career and prepare them to be successful,” said Basquin. “It just really helps give the students real-life, real-world education that'll prepare them for the future.”

For the last two years, Tighe has taken qualified students to showcase their career-ready skills in national Technology Student Association competitions.

“I never had the opportunities to take classes like this,” said Tighe. “So, I think this is amazing to have the kids get that head start in high school for their careers.”