Commentary: Every school in Utah must teach computer science

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Sixth-graders at Layton Elementary School get an introduction to computer programing during the annual Pluralsight Hour of Code event Tuesday, Dec. 9. Pluralsight instructor-author Joe Eames starts the coding class.

Utah is home to a thriving technology industry and has drawn headlines as a “high-tech mecca.” There’s no doubt we’ve reached great heights, and we should enjoy the accolades. However, we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to keep moving forward, striving to reach the next summit in the growth of our ecosystem.

Chief among our top priorities is ensuring equality of opportunity and access to technology skills that will enable us to thrive as a community and have the best and brightest workforce to sustain our growth.

Already there are more than 5,250 open computing jobs in Utah. These open jobs represent good news for Utahns, as we are already witnessing the creation of new, high-paying jobs as a result of our growing technology ecosystem. The bad news is there aren’t enough qualified workers to fill them, and we aren’t doing enough to train our workforce to fill these jobs and the high-tech jobs of the future. To sustain our growth and compete nationally and globally, we need to ensure that computer science is a key pillar of our education system to empower the next generation of problem solvers, creators and leaders.

I have long been a strong advocate for expanding computer science education to every student in the state. I’m encouraged by recent progress, yet more work remains. That’s why I was honored to accept the invitation to join the executive board of Talent Ready Utah. As a board member, I will be on the front line of efforts to build strategies and resources to create a bright future for Utah through technology.

I accepted this invitation because as the CEO of a technology company, I know all too well the challenges we face. The simple truth is that where we are today is not going to sustain our growth. Just 17 percent of Utah high schools currently teach computer science, and there are fewer AP exams taken in computer science than in any other STEM subject area. Last year, less than 0.2 percent of Utah high school students took an AP Computer Science exam. That’s just 405 exams among our state’s 184,000 high schoolers.

If Utah is to live up to its innovative reputation, we have to improve these outcomes.

It’s important not just for the technology industry but for all industries in the state. From agriculture to manufacturing to banking to social services, all sectors use technology and will require more employees with a background in computer science.

Industry is critically important. However, the more important point is that it’s the right thing to do for students. Educating our youth is the single most important action we can take as a society. It’s critical that we equip our students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. Computer science education is central to this goal.

To be sure, we have made great strides in recent years. In 2016, the state Legislature passed SB93 to provide funding for teachers to earn computer science endorsements. A year later, SB190 created the Computing Partnerships Grants program to develop K-12 computer science pathways. Earlier this year, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development officially launched the IT Pathways Program, focused on optimizing business partnerships to increase capacity for education that meets workforce needs. And the Utah State Board of Education created a new computer science task force to more deeply examine and understand how we expand computer science education in the state.

These are all promising steps, and there’s still so much more we need to do. With the momentum and support provided by Gov. Gary Herbert, the State Board of Education and an aligned and engaged private sector, it’s an incredible moment for Utah. We just have to seize it.

Every school in Utah must teach computer science, and every student must have the opportunity to learn computer science regardless of whether they pursue a career in technology. Together, we can meet this goal.

Aaron Skonnard is the co-founder and CEO of Utah-based technology skills development platform Pluralsight.