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The City Journals

New laws, programs prepare Utah students for tech careers

Jun 10, 2019 01:16PM ● By Jet Burnham

FutureINDesign graduate Allyanna Boo demonstrates her graphic design project for Itineris Principal Renee Edwards at the program’s Senior Showcase. (Jet Burnham\City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Graduates of Utah’s 429 high schools will look to fill jobs in the state’s growing tech industry. But are they prepared?

“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. The task force 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 School 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 education through family night activities, after-school clubs and programs such as First Lego League and Girls Who Code. Others have taken a STEM approach to every day instruction.

Nationally recognized STEM program:

West Jordan’s Itineris Early College High School has been nationally recognized for its STEM focus.

Study.com named Itineris on their 2019 list of the 30 Top High School STEM Programs.

Study.com, citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, said STEM jobs grew three times as fast as non-STEM jobs from 2000–2010. 

The site suggests early exposure is key, posting on its website that:

“Rigorous STEM education can give a head start to students interested in pursuing work in these fields before they even reach college.”

Itineris offers concurrent college enrollment classes through Salt Lake City Community College for STEM courses such as college algebra, math research, applied molecular biology, biomolecular separation and analysis, and medical terminology.

What makes Itineris stand out is its after-school STEM and Art program, FutureINDesign or FIND, in which students learn coding, IT networking and graphic design. The program provides industry instructors and opportunities for the juniors and seniors in the program to earn Microsoft and IT certifications. 

FIND graduate Jaron Esquivel is headed to the University of Utah to study computer design. In his FIND class, he designed a personal website as well as business cards and a resume highlighting his experience and skills which he hopes positions him well to qualify for an internship.

FIND graduate Robert Watts is headed for the animation or the special effects fields, while Brandon Bain is planning to continue in coding. They both credit the FIND program for expanding their skills and perspectives for their career paths.

Early Exposure

Some local schools are providing STEM experiences at an earlier age. 

Students at West Jordan Elementary use Chromebooks in their classroom for everyday exposure to word processing and keyboarding skills This frees up their time in the computer lab for exploring more technical skills.

For 45 minutes a week, students learn a variety of technical skills from filming and editing videos to publishing digital books to composing music on their computers. Students learn increasingly complex skills each year—by fifth grade, students can code video games, and by sixth, they have the skills to create animated videos.

“Each grade has had progressively more challenging coding,” said Ellen Smith, computer lab instructor.

Students gain proficiency in an assortment of programs, starting in third grade with PowerPoint and progressing to coding programs such as Scratch and digital drawing programs such as Pixie.

Educators, parents and industry leaders agree that exposure to these kinds of experiences at a young age prompts interest and confidence to better prepare youth for technology careers.

“Early exposure is critical,” said Katherine Kireiev, of the Utah STEM Action Center, which provides grants for educators to implement tech learning. “There are many learning toys for pre-k/early education that engage kids in fun applications of computer science principles.”