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Pumping STEAM: Opportunities to enrich computer science education

Phenomenal growth in Utah’s tech industry continues to garner national attention. But even with great benefits and opportunities, and some serious geek cred, companies in Utah are having a hard time filling thousands of vacancies.

“We have great universities and fantastic technology roots, but if we want to accommodate all the growth, we’re not keeping up,” says Sara Jones, co-founder of Women Technology Council (WTC). “Utah is really struggling to find technology talent.”

The seeds of a strong talent harvest are planted in elementary school—but most schools don’t offer a robust computer science curriculum. In fact, computer science courses are offered in only half of Utah high schools. With more than 41,000 AP exams taken in Utah last year, only 129 were for computer science, and only 12 of those computer science tests were taken by girls.

What if you’re a parent who wants to foster computer skills in your children? Or what if you want to broaden your own knowledge of computer science and coding—either to deepen your skill set or to switch careers? Utah is home to a variety of platforms available to help people find their tech niche.

From the ground up

Paul Pilzner’s daughter was struggling in math in an environment he says segregated students by their ability to learn the curriculum, instead of teaching kids how to learn the concepts.

“Teachers are really failing at teaching math,” Pilzner says. “Learn how the child learns. Make everything a concept they understand. The world our children grow up in is a black box and they’ve never been taught how it works.”

Pilzner says he built the “world’s best math program” and opened Zaniac in Park City in 2011. His process assesses what kids already know and measures progress as each new concept is introduced. “I very quickly learned it was a great business model, but there was no possibility for repeat customers.”

Zaniac quickly evolved to offer more advanced STEM education for children in grades K-8. Students start with math concepts and move onto doing lines of code, physics and robotics competitions. The curriculum changes rapidly to keep up with advances in technology, incorporating game-based learning, game design and more.

Children are tested before and after each class to make sure they understand concepts before moving to the next challenge. Pilzner says once kids realize how math works, it isn’t scary or intimidating anymore.

The best part of Zaniac is the instructors. In fact, Pilzner has a backlog of instructors begging to be hired. “Virtually all our instructors are teenagers or college students. You have a 7-year-old with dyslexia being taught by a 17-year-old with dyslexia and it changes lives. High school students are gods to an elementary school kid.”

Sensing a broad need for STEM education, Pilzner franchised Zaniac to bring much-needed learning opportunities to students from coast-to-coast. Each campus offers the Zane Math K-8 tutoring plus enrichment courses like 3D printing and Zaniac Robotics.

“Once [students] understand binary numbers, it opens the black box of life. All the STEM subjects bring order to a child’s life on a very basic level,” he says.

Fostering an interest

Some extra computer science education can be crammed in during the summer, too, when the state’s universities offer week-long computer science, engineering and robotics summer camps for kids. The University of Utah, for example, hosts the GREAT (Graphics and Robotics Exploration with Amazing Technology) summer camps, which let students from fourth through 12th grade work on games, animations and robots.

Many local universities also host FIRST Lego League competitions, which bring kids together in teams to design, build and program a robot using Lego Mindstorms.

The Leonardo offers summer camps and “apprenticeships” for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. The apprenticeships, which are only for the older kids, give students in-depth and immersive experiences focused on engineering or animation.

Many of the extracurricular camps and activities are aimed at getting girls engaged in STEM and computer science.

Each March the Women Technology Council organizes SheTech Explorer Day, a STEM fair for female high school students that includes workshops, a tech challenge, mentoring and the chance to create connections in the tech industry. This year, WTC held SheTech events at Utah Valley University and Weber State University.

“As a community, we are getting better at messaging to young girls about why tech matters to them,” Jones says. “Our messaging is also to parents, who have a huge influence.”

A chance to grow

Adult women coming back to the workforce, or looking for a new career, are finding a home in tech, but many still shy away from the industry.

The WTC spearheaded efforts to learn why more women don’t engage in the technology culture. What Jones found is there are few entry-level courses in most STEM platforms for adults. Basic skill development wasn’t being taught to create a viable pathway for women to make an impact in technology companies.

“WTC [has] always cared about women’s place in the tech industry,” Jones says. “We’ve developed programs to help all women along the economic pipeline from the classroom to the boardroom. We believe that men and women need to work together to create success in the state.”

One organization, Girl Develop It, hopes to bring down barriers for women interested in tech. Girl Develop It provides “affordable and judgment-free opportunities for women interested in learning web and software development.” Two Utah chapters (in Salt Lake and Provo), set up hack nights were women can mingle, socialize, network and learn from each other.

Participants tend to come from diverse backgrounds, but help each other build confidence and achieve their technology goals.

Continuing education

Of course, many adults—not just women—would like to make a career jump into tech and computer science. There are many no-risk approaches for adults to try their hand at coding. In fact, some specialized platforms designed for kids in K-12 are also great intimidation-free programming courses for adults.

Khan Academy takes learners through basic math concepts, computer science and calculus using technology that focuses on a student’s strengths and weaknesses. The program is considered a good on-ramp for people who have had little, or no, exposure to coding.

Another option, Codeacademy, is an online learning platform designed to offer an engaging, interactive experience. Fun projects and quizzes give users the chance to learn code, create a website and become fluent in any number of computer programming languages.

It can be frustrating to learn the terminology and jargon for a new industry, but Jones says once a person is humble enough to make mistakes to acquire new skills, they begin to see what happens as they enter the world of coding.

If you’re a little more serious about making the leap into coding, the state’s many boot camps are another way to attain or brush up on the latest coding skills. Coding boot camps require a bigger commitment of time and money, but are a great way to learn a variety of the coding languages in demand right now.

Coding boot camp DevPoint Labs recently partnered with University of Utah Continuing Education to offer a $9,995 a web development course that, over an 11-week period, will focus on technologies like Ruby on Rails, Javascript, ReactJS, HTML/CSS, jQuery, and Postgres.

Before you join a class or mentorship group, Jones says entry-level positions in tech companies are a great way for people to learn about tech, software products and customer support. She says these jobs give workers exposure to the tech scene, especially for people starting a new career or returning to the workforce.

“There are lots of entry points working within the tech industry,” Jones says. “For some reason, we’re always talking to [people] about learning coding, but there are other ways to get exposure to technology jobs that might help them be more comfortable working with technology.”