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New statewide K-12 computer science program among first in the U.S.

SALT LAKE CITY — State officials approved a master plan Thursday that marks the beginning of an effort to make computer science available to every Utah K-12 public school student by 2022.

The launch comes after a $5 million matching challenge dropped by a group of Utah tech entrepreneurs in January prodded lawmakers to pass and fund HB227, a proposal from the 2019 session that created the new four-year program.

Even though the $3.15 million in one-time funding approved by legislators left a potential $2 million in matching money on the table, Pluralsight co-founder and CEO Aaron Skonnard lauded the effort.

“Computer science is now a foundational literacy that is critical to preparing Utah students to succeed in our technology-driven world,” Skonnard said in a statement. “Every school in Utah must teach computer science, and every student must have equality of opportunity to learn computer science regardless of whether they pursue a career in technology.

"With the approval of our state master plan, we now have a roadmap to achieve that outcome, and we are one step closer to delivering on Gov. (Gary) Herbert’s goal of ensuring every K-12 student in Utah has the opportunity to learn computer science by 2022.”

Skonnard was one of five founders of successful Utah tech companies who each committed $1 million in personal funds to match financing the state dedicated to a comprehensive computer science effort. Other funders included InsideSales CEO Dave Elkington, DOMO CEO Josh James, Vivint Smart Home CEO Todd Pedersen and Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith.

The Utah Computer Science Master Plan was developed by the Talent Ready Computer Science committee with input from subject matter experts and stakeholders across industry sectors, according to the Governors Office of Economic Development, which oversees the Talent Ready programs.

Herbert lauded the program as a critical step toward helping prepare Utah students for the tech-centric jobs of the future.

“I appreciate the leadership of the Talent Ready Utah board and the State Board of Education in creating a comprehensive and actionable strategy to offer computer science courses to all K-12 students in Utah,” Herbert said in a statement. “Computer science impacts every industry. Computing jobs are the number one source of new wages in the U.S. and are projected to grow at twice the rate of other jobs.

"Computer science is a new literacy, and we must ensure that all students across our state have the opportunity to learn and develop the skills needed to create their futures.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson called the effort "essential" and noted the program will also help create more qualified instructors for the new courses.

“The Utah Computer Science Plan identifies key needs, strategies and target outcomes across six essential categories that uplift the education system and its successful and equitable integration of computer science,” Dickson said in a statement. “The board of education is committed to increasing enriching, high-quality computer science learning opportunities for students across grade levels. Likewise, we are committed to building long-term and sustainable capacity within our local education agencies while prioritizing professional development opportunities for our educators.”

Pluralsight Chief Impact Officer Lindsey Kneuven, who is also the executive director of the company's philanthropic arm, Pluralsight One, said she believes the plan is among the best of its kind in the country.

"This is a huge system to shift," Kneuven said. "We're preparing students for the future of work in a new way. It will require a continued investment, and will be a multigenerational effort … but I really believe we have one of the leading plans in the nation."

Kneuven said the approach prioritizes diversity and inclusion, a recognition of a current system that has lagged behind in creating a curriculum that leads to equitable student involvement. Another challenge will be creating a system of qualified instructors, across topics, and a "living curriculum" that can track with the fast-evolving world of computer science.

"This is a huge challenge that all states are grappling with," Kneuven said. "A critical partnership with the board of education will help us really think about how frequently we refresh content, standards and resources.

"We'll also be staying connected with other states and the material they're generating, having a broader national ecosystem to pull from."

According to GOED, Utah is the 12th state in the U.S. to develop and implement a statewide computer science curriculum plan.

State-collected data reflects a current dearth of computer science opportunities in Utah schools:

• Only 54% of all public high schools teach computer science.

• Only 376 exams were taken in AP computer science by Utah high school students in 2018.

• Only 23% of those test takers were female.

• Only 62 exams were taken by Hispanic or Latino students.

• Only six exams were taken by black students.

• Only one exam was taken by American Indian or Alaska Native students.

• Only one exam was taken by Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students.

• Only 32 schools in Utah (16% of Utah schools with AP programs) offered an AP computer science course in 2017-18.

• There are fewer AP exams taken in computer science than in any other STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subject area.