Legislative committee approves bill to fund computer coding classes in Utah schools

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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers unanimously recommended a bill Tuesday that seeks to provide more opportunities for Utah students to gain computer coding experience in junior high and high school.

SB107 would allocate just more than $2 million for the Utah STEM Action Center and the Utah State Board of Education to approve and purchase computer coding software programs teachers could use to teach the skill, which is in high demand among employers in the state and across the nation, according to bill sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

"We have a shortage, and we should be supplying that shortage of trained employees from Americans rather than having to ship these high-paying jobs offshore, or having to go to other countries to bring those employees here," Stephenson said to the Senate Education Committee.

Up to $1.5 million would be used to license computer coding instructional software for schools, and $320,000 would be used to provide professional development for teachers. The bill would also require the STEM Action Center and the State School Board to report back to the Legislature on how successful the program becomes.

The bill doesn't recommend any particular source for instructional software. Instead, several programs would be selected on a competitive basis. Some schools that are already using free software to teach the skill could allocate the funds to professional development instead, Stephenson said.

"We ought to make sure the (schools) are able to utilize their funds in a way that meets their needs best, and maybe what they need is more professional development and training as opposed to the software selection," he said.

Paul Savage, of Highland, said he's a "curious parent" with children in high school who are interested in technology but are "hungry for resources and frustrated." He said educators should reach out to businesses hiring computer coders to understand specifically what needs to be taught in a computer coding class.

"Some of the teachers have a perception that doing a PowerPoint presentation is somehow coding. It's not. Learning how to cut and paste and resize is not coding," Savage said.

"There is a disconnect, I think, in our education community about what that really is. … I agree that we want to have local control, but the local control has to get it, and too often, by assigning somebody that says, 'I can teach this class,' they think they're getting it. But that person wouldn't necessarily be hired" in the industry.

Jay Blain, director of policy and research at the Utah Education Association, said he taught computer science for 17 years and that giving more students opportunities to learn computer coding skills will help meet the needs of Utah businesses, as well as give students a valuable skill.

"We know it's important for the students in the state of Utah, and we know it's important for the future of our state economy as well," Blain said. "To train our students in-house, keep them in our state and not have to bring in outside talent is important." Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com Twitter: MorganEJacobsen

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