Utah’s governor and tech leaders want every school to have a computer science class by 2022

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Evelyn Goodman and Clara Bigler work on a science project at the State Capitol before Gov. Gary Herbert announced new computer science funding for Utah students at a news conference, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019.

Nearly a third of Utah high school students don’t have access to a computer science class.

It’s not because the demand is high and seats fill up fast. It’s because their schools don’t offer any courses on the subject.

“Computer science has become a form of literacy just like reading,” said Aaron Skonnard, CEO of the Farmington-based tech company Pluralsight. “But not everyone is learning it. And our kids do not have equal opportunities.”

That disparity is the basis for a partnership formalized Monday between Utah’s tech sector and the governor’s office. Together, leaders have pledged millions of dollars so that by 2022 all schools in the state — with an extra focus on high schools, rural areas and those with high minority populations — will have at least one computer science offering.

The announcement comes after the state Board of Education approved last week new computer science standards for sixth through 12th grades, opening them up for public comment. Members voted previously this fall to revamp the guidelines for kindergarten through fifth. The goal is to bring classrooms dramatically up to date on the software and coding changes of the 21st century.

But it doesn’t cover the gap between schools that offer coursework and those that don’t.

For that, Gov. Gary Herbert said, he wants to invest $10.2 million in his upcoming budget. And he has the support of the House speaker and Senate president who attended Monday’s news conference.

Outside a group of kids played with laptops and Legos and robots in the Rotunda to showcase one class that has already been incorporating coding into its coursework. “I love programming,” one boy shouted. “I know how to do it,” a girl said as she used a tablet to make a mechanized ball roll across the marble floor.

Clara Bigler, 10, pointed to a model car she was building with her friend Evelyn Goodman. “This is supposed to spin around,” Bigler noted. “But it’s updating right now.”

Teacher Merissa Graves, who oversees the fifth grade class from Horizon Elementary in Murray, said she’s added the computing lessons because she believes that’s where most workplaces are heading — which was also Herbert’s point.

“Our economy has changed and shifted dramatically over the last generation,” the governor said, noting there are 5,000 unfilled computing jobs in the state. “Our education system needs to change and reflect the skills needed in the marketplace.”

If accomplished, Utah would be the 12th in the nation to expand computer science classes to every school. The state has roughly 659,000 students — not all would have to sign up for the coursework, but everyone would have access under the plan.

In high school, in particular, taking a computer science class can count toward filling a science credit needed for graduation; but it’s not required and, as such, many schools don’t offer it. At least 58,000 of the 200,000 high schoolers in the state attend a school with no coding courses.

Fikir Teklemedhin, a sophomore at West High School in Salt Lake City, said she first fell into computing when she accidentally signed up for a class in seventh grade. “I was fortunate that was offered,” she said. But, Teklemedhin noted, students shouldn’t have to be “lucky or fortunate” to take basic classes.

“We are depriving children,” she said Monday after Herbert’s speech. “Knowing even the basics of computing can give them opportunities that would be unattainable otherwise.”

Teklemedhin, 16, said she wants to pursue a career in computer science and has taken two programming courses and an Advanced Placement class since she became interested.

Utah tech companies and industry leaders — led by Skonnard — have also pooled $4 million for a separate fund where schools and districts could propose after-school programs, summer initiatives or field trips related to coding and get extra funding. That’s down from the $5 million those companies had promised in February.

Herbert heralded that private money, suggesting that the combined effort is “going to spur us into the future.”