Coding should be an essential part of school curriculums
At one time, reading, writing, and arithmetic were the three main pillars taught in schools to prepare students for the workforce. However, in the last decade or so, academics have changed significantly—with technology now proving to be a crucial component in school curriculums.
In K-12 schools across Utah, students are learning not only computer basics like keyboarding and file management but also web and game development, coding, desktop publishing, animation, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) as early as elementary school.
The purpose of this technology-driven curriculum enhances students’ digital literacy and helps better prepare them for a world where technology has become a normal part of everyday life. Job growth in the technology sector continues to multiply at increasing levels and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon, and one of the best ways to ensure that job candidates stand out from a sea of resumes is to introduce them to technology while they’re still young.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment in computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow 13 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.” These tech-focused occupations are projected to add more than 660,000 new jobs across the country. The bureau also found that there’s an increasing demand for workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs, with positions like web developers and database administrators becoming increasingly popular career paths amongst graduating classes.
To get students better prepared for entering the workforce, the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) partnered with the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETH) and the Utah Legislature in 2012 to create Utah’s Master Plan: Essential Elements for Technology Powered Learning. The plan’s vision is to “change and improve the culture of public education, classroom instruction, student and parent engagement, teaching, and learning processes while providing access to quality digital curriculum.”
For the master plan to succeed, it has been designed to take classic school subjects like reading and writing and infuse them with digitally-driven skill sets that will help students “adapt, create, consume, and connect in productive, responsible ways to utilize technology in social, academic, and professional settings.”
“One thing we’re always taking into consideration is students’ learning and how we can leverage technology to support them,” says Todd Call, coordinator of the USBE’s Digital Teaching and Learning Program. “We look at how technology can help them accomplish their goals and be prepared for the future.”
According to Call, Utah is “looked at as a leader in personalized competency learning,” and the state’s policies and funding have been put in place to prioritize and personalize learning for each student. For example, of the 675,274 students in Utah, there are approximately 880,000 computing devices available to them as part of the state’s 1:1 program, giving each student access to a device—such as a Chromebook—which they can use in classes and at home to do homework.
Kids should be coding
While it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that today’s generation of K-12 students are digitally native and can excel in all things tech, some educators have discovered that’s it’s quite the opposite—many students struggle to complete some of the most basic computer skills. This became especially apparent during the Covid pandemic when schools pivoted from in-person classes to virtual.
One educator noticed this struggle immediately. Ashley Higgs is a career and technology education (CTE) specialist for the USBE who focuses on preparing K-8 students in topics like digital literacy, keyboarding, and word processing. “I often joke that [today’s students] came out of the womb with an iPhone in their hands—it’s their world, and they grew up with tech,” Higgs says. “But when Covid hit, I realized how digitally illiterate some of them were. They struggled with things like uploading and downloading class materials, attaching documents, and getting on Zoom calls [to attend virtual classes]. They’re used to opening up an app and seeing what they want to see; they didn’t have to deal with all of these other things daily—it threw them for a loop.”
It’s becoming increasingly important for students to learn tech basics at an early age and understand how a device or program operates beyond simply uploading a video to Instagram or TikTok. “We’re teaching them to be creators and not just consumers,” Higgs says. “We’re looking at ways where teaching can be different—for instance, project-based learning and simulation.”
One example is a class led by Kristina Yamada, a fellow CTE specialist who teaches secondary school courses in the Davis School District in topics like cybersecurity, information technology systems, and web development. She’s also added AR/VR and game development to students’ skill sets.
“For AR and VR, I take them through the whole design process and assign them a project where they choose a problem in the world and how they can solve it using technology that’s right in their hands,” Yamada says. “And for game development lessons, students aren’t just sitting there playing games all day long; they’re actively learning about the design process and creating video games.”
Yamada and Higgs confirm that students are receptive to learning more about technology. These tech-driven lessons have opened students’ eyes to what their futures can look like by becoming skilled in these different areas.
“I’ve seen students’ tech knowledge and usage expand and how they’re utilizing [these skills] better and more efficiently,” Yamada says. “I’ve had students think that if they’re not based in Salt Lake City, they can’t become programmers. I tell them that you don’t need to live in a city to be a programmer and that, because of technology, there are many jobs they can do virtually. This had never crossed their minds before, but now we’re giving them opportunities that they had never considered for their futures.”
College students should be building
K-12 schools in Utah aren’t the only academic institutions building curriculums that incorporate technology to prepare students for the future. At Brigham Young University-Hawaii, Paul Wilson, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship, teaches a course called Entrepreneurship Leadership Practicum (unofficially called Enactus).
For this class, students work on projects that “either develop a life skill, leverage a market opportunity, or work on solving a social issue.” He’s modeled the class to simulate an incubator environment where students can work either together or solo on their projects while also learning from guest speakers from the community who serve as mentors. To earn course credit, students must work on a project and show how it can be turned into a business, although it’s not required that they actually launch the business.
Wilson has been teaching the class since 2014. Currently, he teaches alongside Dakota Vincent, a software engineer and BYU-Hawaii alum, though he believes it has been available at the university in some shape or form since the late 90s or early 00s.
The weekly course, which tops out at about 100 students per semester, has become so popular that many students have enrolled repeatedly. (He says the record is seven times—how many college courses can claim that?—which enables repeat students to build an array of mobile apps.)
“I set up the class in a way that I wish had been available back when I was in school,” Wilson says. “This course is not lecture-based and is focused on experiential learning.”
Wilson, who earned a master of science from Carnegie Mellon University in information technology/e-business, has focused his lesson plans on the metaverse. He has paired up with Adam Sidwell, founder/head of Future House Studios—a Salt Lake City-based metaverse creation company that specializes in virtual reality, animation, and creative development (Recent FHS projects include creating virtual concerts for The Weeknd, John Legend, and even Sonic the Hedgehog featuring DJ Steve Aoki). For the class, the studio donated Oculus VR headsets to the school for the students to use as they work on their projects.
“Every single week, students are in the metaverse and they can check out headsets for the semester and participate in the class from anywhere within the building,” Wilson says. “Play is an important part of discovery learning, and this class lets them play in the metaverse while guiding them through different perspectives. So many people think that video games are the only aspect of the metaverse, but there are so many other applications.”
Wilson extolled students’ excitement in a recent LinkedIn post, as many had never experienced virtual reality before. “One student filmed the unboxing of his headset and streamed to his social media account everything he was doing. This level of excitement is what every teacher hopes their students have for a subject,” he wrote.
As proof that his course is preparing students for the real world—especially where entrepreneurship and technology are concerned—Wilson points to a former student who created an international business while taking the class called RiceUp Farmers, Inc. Growing up in the Philippines and being the grandson of a farmer, student Elvin Lacedo, noticed how much his grandfather struggled financially and wanted to create a mobile app that would help other low-income farmers in his home country get more money for their products by cutting out “loan sharks.”
According to an article published by BYU-Hawaii, RiceUp has helped hundreds of farmers. Today, Lacedo travels the world to teach farmers how they can succeed financially by cutting out the middleman. “He revolutionized technology in rice farming,” Wilson says, “and uses drones to help farmers.”
While Lacedo serves as a textbook example of how the class can help students pave successful futures for themselves, Wilson says it’s important that students receive encouragement, especially when their projects don’t work out quite as planned. “This class gives them the space to fail, which is not something you normally hear at the university level,” he says. “No one wants to fail a class, but I encourage them to go try something new and experiment because in [my classroom] it doesn’t devastate your whole life if an idea doesn’t work out.”
This freedom has allowed students to step out of their comfort zones and think creatively while preparing for their futures.
“Ultimately, I want students to understand that technology is a tool that they can use in many different ways,” Wilson says. “I hope that through this course, they can become entrepreneurs and help change the world.”