Computer Science for K-12: Silicon Slopes Has Plans for Utah

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(Courtesy of Carine Clark of Silicon Slopes)

By Mandi Johansen

 

The Silicon Slopes Tech Summit was held at the Salt Palace Convention Center on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, 2019. The summit is organized and hosted by the Silicon Slopes organization. The conference brought out almost 24,000 attendees this year, more than the previous year.

According to their website, “Silicon Slopes Tech Summit features prominent keynotes, premium breakout sessions, breathtaking entertainment, unbelievable parties, incredible networking opportunities and an exclusive screening of a film from the Sundance Film Festival. The amount of talent and experience that’s on display makes this a unique event that could only happen in Silicon Slopes.” CEOs from major companies as well as Gov. Herbert and Lt-Gov. Spencer Cox came out to support the conference.

The Silicon Slopes organization doesn’t pay any of the influential people that make an appearance at the conference. “They come because we ask them to come,” said Carine Clark, president and CEO of Banyan and member of the Silicon Slopes board.

Silicon Slopes is a nonprofit organization that empowers Utah’s tech and startup community to “learn, connect, and serve.” They are continuously demonstrating the best ways to serve the community of which they are a part.

Silicon Slopes Tech Summit’s website says “With more than 6,500 startup and tech companies in Utah, Silicon Slopes is home to entrepreneurs and leaders who have earned global recognition through hard work, a focus on building exceptional companies, and a willingness to give back and serve others.” Silicon Slopes understands that Utah has to continue progressing in order to keep up with and excel in national and global markets, but the progress has to be not just in the tech companies near Thanksgiving Point. The progress must also include and come from the state’s students and future generations of entrepreneurs.

This is no better exemplified than the five young CEOs who offered up their own money to encourage Utah lawmakers to pass a bill to include computer science classes in Utah schools. House Bill 227, the Computer Science Grant Act, sponsored by Rep. John Knotwell of Herriman, plans to put computer science programs into every Utah school by the year 2022.

Silicon Slopes has been working with the state of Utah for years to incorporate computer science in classrooms as a state initiative, but “the only way to really make it happen is to have a public-private partnership,” Clark said.

Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard, Domo CEO Josh James, Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith, Vivint CEO Todd Pedersen and InsideSales CEO Dave Elkington each offered $1 million out of their own pocket in order to encourage the bill to pass, or as Clark said, “to give the state of Utah a little push.” This money will match and add to what the state of Utah decides to allocate to the computer science programs in schools. The bill would put a total of $10 million into computer science programs in every Utah school.

The plan for the public and private partnership was announced on Jan. 31 by Gov. Herbert and Lt Gov. Cox. If the bill is passed, then this program will be the first and only one in the country so far. Skonnard has been outspoken about the importance of a program such as this for a long time, but pledging his personal funds along with the other CEOs is a step up from their original advocacy of the plan.

 

The Option for Utah Schools

The program is optional for schools, but it would give the funding needed to hire and train teachers required for having a computer science program. The program is also available for any public schools grades K-12.

While having computer science classes taught in Utah schools is understandably important to the CEOs of tech companies, according to Clark, it should be important to everyone in the state. “We want them [our kids] to take coding classes because we need them to become computational thinkers,” Clark said. “In this digital economy, if our Utah kids are not digital thinkers, they’re not going to get the best jobs, they’re going to be behind and they’ll be behind forever.” This program will especially help those students that don’t have access to the internet or computers in their home.

Teachers of computer science understand the need for it in schools. One such teacher is Cody Henrichsen, who teaches computer science at the Canyons Technical Education Center in Sandy. Good teachers will be able to teach kids to apply computer science in all aspects of their education and life. Currently, only 54 percent of high schools in Utah teach computer science, with only 32 schools in Utah offering an AP computer science program for the 2017-18 school year.

At the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, students have access to many of the best companies in Utah. They can meet the great minds behind some of the most influential companies in Utah. They can ask questions and learn from them firsthand, which is a unique experience. They have access to CEOs of companies who are there to talk to students and young people. Many students even leave the conference with internships. Although it is a tech conference, there is something there for everyone. There are six tracks, and they have different focuses. One was on social good, which is how we use technology to take care of problems in our society. They also had a consumer track, so students could talk to people like Joel Clark, the founder of Kodiak Cakes and a University of Utah alumnus, or the owner of Traeger Grills among others.

 

A Conference Breakdown

The conference is a great way for companies and people to show off all the great developments happening in Utah. There were classes on artificial intelligence, which showcased how to use AI to save lives. Damien Patton, founder and CEO of Banjo, based in Park City, talked about how AI can be used to end human suffering because he can shave 90 seconds off of emergency call responses.

This is just one example of the many cutting-edge innovations happening in Utah. Attending this conference is a great way for entrepreneurs to get the word out and for attendees to learn about what is happening in our great state.

“If students can see what we’re doing, it helps them to see what’s out there,” Clark said. The U has a well-known computer science program which can only be improved if students are entering the program with the correct arsenal of skills that they have learned from a young age. Many students from the U attend the conference each year and leave with knowledge and resources that can be used to improve our school and campus.

Southern Utah University sent two buses of students to the conference. After the first day of the conference, one of the students remarked, “I had no idea what this was, but I wanted to go with the rest of my entrepreneurial class and I am so blown away. Now I want to stay in tech.”

Clark reiterated several times that students are important for the future of Utah. “We love students and I will always make a way for students to get there. We don’t charge students. We want students to come to the event because it changes them. If you didn’t come this year, come next year.” You can sign up for the conference online.

While the annual conference is well-known and important in connecting people in the community, it isn’t just “once a year and be done” for Silicon Slopes. The nonprofit organization works throughout the year to give people access to capital and entrepreneurs. They are always trying to make a difference and succeeding in helping Utah progress to the best that it can be.

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@MandilynJohans1