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Utah Business

Utah Companies Are Funding Stem Education

It’s back-to-school time, and kids may see more science and technology in their classrooms thanks, in part, to a few of Utah businesses.

This month, Governor Gary Herbert’s Office of Economic Development unveiled an ambitious master plan that aims to bring computer science courses to every school in the state by 2022.

The plan partly came from a public goading from five tech CEOs this winter. The leaders of Pluralsight, InsideSales, DOMO, Vivint SmartHome, and Qualitrics all volunteered to donate $1 million apiece out of their own pockets to get the ball rolling on better computer science education. They also challenged state lawmakers to act and inject much-needing funding into K-12 computer education. This past session, the legislature approved the Utah Computer Science Grant Act, which earmarks $3.15 million for the governor’s Computer Science Master Plan.

The action taken by the five CEOs is an example of how Utah businesses are taking the lead when it comes to improving education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“We’re seeing more engagement from companies in last four or five years than ever [before]. They’re making such a big difference,” says Tamara Goetz, executive director of the Utah STEM Action Center.

“STEM education drives innovation and it drives a better quality of life,” Ms. Goetz says. “It’s a way of learning that’s exploratory and analytical. It teaches kids to think.” She also mentions that STEM education opens doors to some of Utah’s highest-paying jobs. Tech workers make an average of more than $84,000 each year, almost double the state’s average salary of $46,460.  

The Education Problem In Utah

But Utah still faces plenty of challenges with STEM education. As the state works to brand itself as a “Silicon Slopes” entrepreneurial hub, companies struggle to find qualified local workers. Only 16 percent of Utah high schools have intermediate or advanced computer science courses, according to the Computer Science Education Master Plan.

This past spring, members of the state school board clashed over updated science teaching standards. The state also lags behind the nation when it comes to STEM education for women and girls. Between 2012 and 2017, Utah women with STEM degrees or certifications grew only by 1 percent. Only 21 percent of women in the state have completed STEM education degrees and programs.

That’s why in 2015, Provo-based InsideSales launched its first Girls Code Camp. And this past summer, the camp hosted 40 elementary school-aged girls. “We wanted to be like, ‘OK, let’s offer a chance to have all these girls come in and see what coding is all about,’” says Ryan Breneman, a member of the InsideSales marketing team. “We wanted to show them that this is something you can do. It’s something you can do as a profession, if you like it.”

The company also collaborated with BYU adjunct professor, Anglea Jones to develop a KidsCode curriculum, taught by InsideSales employees. Fourth graders spend an hour each Friday learning about coding, circuits, and computer thinking. Students aren’t just stuck in front of screens for the course – KidsCode includes hands-on activities like making binary bracelets.

“I feel it’s very important for kids to be exposed to these skills, especially at a young age, before they have preconceived notions of what they can do in their lives,” Ms. Jones said. KidsCode has reached seven schools to date. Though Mr. Breneman acknowledges that’s just a drop in the bucket, considering Utah has more than 40 school districts and nearly 600 elementary schools.

How Utah Companies Are Helping

That’s why the company encourages other tech leaders to get involved. To date, Domo, Vivint, Health Catalyst, and Nuvi have employee volunteers teaching the KidsCode course.

Farmington-based Pluralsight has also periodized bringing tech and computer education to more schools in the state. The company’s nonprofit, Pluralsight One, funded the Utah Computer Science Education Master Plan.

The plan and Pluralsight’s nonprofit emphasizes reducing educational barriers, especially in rural and underserved communities. “Some of our challenges are diversity and inclusion issues in the classroom,” says Lindsey Kneuven, Pluralsight’s chief impact officer.

Those inclusion issues “may [involve] the way computer science is messaged. It doesn’t seem relevant to certain students,” Ms. Kneuven says. Instead of focusing on a careers in engineering, for example, Ms. Kneuven says educators can help students understand the importance of tech education in agriculture.

“To be a farmer today, you have to have chips in every dairy cow that measures milk production,” Ms. Kneuven said. “We really want to help youth see the relevance of these skillsets to their dreams and their aspirations.”

Computer science represents a small subset of STEM education, but Ms. Goetz says industries from health care, to aeronautical engineering, and banking are getting involved and connecting young Utahns to science and technology learning.

This fall, Intermountain Healthcare will bring a role-playing game to rural middle school students to help them explore science and technology careers in the health industry―including jobs that don’t require medical degrees.  

“Students all know you can be a doctor or nurse, but what about a phlebotomist or an X-ray technician?” says Colleen Fisher, a STEM Action Center program manager who is working with IHC to develop the game.

Other companies volunteer their time at events like STEM Fest, which had 20,000 student participants and 50 corporate exhibitors last year. “The whole point of STEM Fest was to showcase our companies and what they do,” Ms. Goetz says.

Growing corporate involvement with STEM education is partly self-serving – it leads to future employees with the skills and knowledge to keep up with ever-changing technology. That makes STEM training a good investment.

But Ms. Goetz says that many Utah businesses – and their highly skilled workers – are driven by altruism as well. “They want to give back. It’s part of their culture,” she says. “The new talent they’re hiring, it’s a generation of employees that kind of expect a corporate culture that allows them time to give back to the community