September 2, 2014

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School of Thought

High School Curriculum Changes Aim to Fuel Utah’s Tech Job Growth

By Gaylen Webb

September 2, 2014


Utah high school students will soon have more flexibility when it comes to filling science requirements by taking computer science courses instead of physics or chemistry. But will that help produce the tech-savvy workforce Utah’s tech sector is searching for? The Utah State School Board is betting on it.

In June the board voted to allow high school students to replace a required half-credit introductory computer class with other, more rigorous computer science classes of their choosing. The board also voted to allow students to count more advanced computer science classes toward their graduation requirements in science. Utah is now one of 23 states where students can use computer science classes for credit toward high school graduation.

In the past, computer science classes were treated as electives. Because they weren’t courses that met graduation requirements, students often overlooked computer science to focus on required subjects. That, industry leaders say, put students behind in terms of industry needs. But with the curriculum changes, those same students can now be ahead of the curve.

A Grassroots Approach

Stan Lockhart, one of the state’s pioneers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, says the curriculum change has been bubbling up from grassroots efforts by business leaders to encourage more students to experience computer science classes, hoping they might like the field and pursue it in college. Software developers are some of the most in-demand people in Utah’s job market. According to Code.org, there are currently 4,639 open computing jobs in Utah and the sector is growing twice as fast as the state average.

Business leaders say the state school board’s curriculum changes are a big step in the right direction for helping to meet the workforce needs of the tech community. “This will be helpful to employers and it will be helpful to students,” Lockhart says. “It will allow more exposure to the computer science discipline before students get into college.”

The Utah Technology Council was one of the primary drivers of the change along with leaders from higher education and the business community.

Richard Nelson, president and CEO of the UTC, says the school board’s unanimous action is “a huge win for students” because it will mainstream them into computer science and computer programming courses.” Some leaders were surprised by the school board’s sudden move, anticipating a two- or three-year struggle to get the change approved, but “clearly, the state board is interested in student opportunities and industry needs,” Nelson says.

A Hunger for Talent

Chet Linton is doubly invested in the curriculum change. As CEO of School Improvement Network and chairman of the UTC board, he’s hoping his company of more than 300 employees will feel a positive change over the next few years.

As a CEO, he’s excited to be in Utah with its strong economy, but the continuous battle for talent, especially for computer science and computer engineering talent, hampers business growth. “It is really hard to find talent and when you do you have to pay a premium,” he says. “We’ve had open positions—and I bet most companies in the tech side do, too—for at least a year and probably longer.”

Linton says it’s exciting that students now have greater options. He believes it will help prepare a workforce in high school that will ultimately feed more students into computer science and software development fields, which will help reduce the talent shortage. “The talent shortage has been a big challenge for Utah businesses and it is a big challenge for our state,” he says.

While there have been road blocks over the years in helping Utah’s K-20 education process evolve according to industry needs, Linton, Nelson, Lockhart and many other leaders see the value of this change. They believe it will help make the curriculum more rigorous and contribute to a larger strategy to mainstream computer science classes in order to help students be relevant in today’s hot job market.

“The hot jobs are going unfilled, and yet the state’s curriculum in the K-12 system is antiquated,” says Nelson. He adds that for every computer programmer, there are approximately three additional support jobs that must be filled—meaning the curriculum changes can eventually help to add jobs both directly and indirectly.

A New Challenge

The challenge now is implementing the curriculum changes in the state’s high schools, where computer science offerings still vary district by district and depend largely on the available teaching talent. The practicality, Linton says, is whether or not the high schools have teachers qualified to teach the computer science subject matter.

“Every year school districts are making choices based upon personnel changes and available talent,” he says. “Making the computer science courses available is a practical issue that may require distance learning offerings as well.”

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