Private-Sector Companies Back Fund to Revamp Utah’s Approach to Computer Science Instruction

Contributing Writer

A Utah-based foundation is partnering with business leaders to form a $4 million philanthropic fund aimed partly at boosting computer science teaching in the state, in yet another sign of  education and private sector leaders’ fixation on cultivating tech-based skills in students.

The Community Foundation of Utah, a collection of charitable funds dedicated to improving communities in the state, is launching the Silicon Slopes Computer Science Fund, which is designed to target state benchmarks through “replicable, innovative, and scalable” investments, according to a foundation statement issued on Monday.

The money has been established as a “field of interest fund,” in which donors provide money for a specific issue or cause through a foundation.

“To our knowledge, this is the first field-of-interest fund in the country with an explicit focus on computer science education,” foundation CEO Alex Eaton said in an email to EdWeek Market Brief.

The Utah philanthropic fund was launched with initial contributions and pledges by leaders from online education company Pluralsight, software company Qualtrics, cloud software company Domo, and sales acceleration company InsideSales.com, as well as the leaders’ spouses. Each couple contributed or pledged $1 million to the fund.

“Technology is changing the future of work and it is essential that all students have access to computer science education to prepare for the careers of the future,” former U.S. Secretary of Education and current Pluralsight board member Arne Duncan said in a statement. “The Silicon Slopes Computer Science Fund introduces an innovative way for funders of all types and sizes to come together around this critical issue and support a focused strategy that will impact the future of Utah’s students and teachers for years to come.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, has set a goal of providing every Utah K-12 student the opportunity to learn computer science by 2022, and public and private organizations have developed a comprehensive four-year master plan toward accomplishing this goal.

The fund may support innovation grants to support classrooms, educators, and nonprofits that invest in replicable models for computer science teaching. The funding will also enable teachers to teach computer science more effectively, and back nonprofits that provide specialized programming and intervention designed to increase technology diversity, according to the statement.

The first grant from the fund will be based on the diversity section in the Utah State Computer Science Education Master Plan, and will be dispersed after finalization of district plans, when there will be greater visibility into needs and funding gaps, Eaton said.

The fund’s immediate priorities are focused around addressing diversity and data/reporting needs outlined in the master plan, Eaton said.

Rural, Low-Income Communities in Mind

Many K-12 and business leaders across the country have taken a strong interest in expanding and improving the teaching of computer science in recent years, arguing that taking that step will prepare students for the future job market.

The number of students taking certain types of computer science courses, and Advanced Placement exams in that subject, have soared over time.

But even as states and districts have sought to increase standards in the subject, many schools have struggled to keep up. Finding qualified teachers to lead computer science classes is not easy. And some critics worry that many new computer science courses being offered by districts are teaching watered-down, basic skills.

Leaders of the fund say they anticipate announcing its first grant in late January or early February, but actual deployment of any funds will “depend on the particulars of that investment decision,” Eaton said.

The master plan calls for the first phase of its diversity strategy to be implemented in March. That phase involves expansion of computer science access to schools that serve rural and low-income populations.

The goals of the master plan’s diversity section include defining minimum standards for networking, hardware, software, and maintenance needed for computer science education; a regular assessment of infrastructure needs (such as access to broadband) and technology needs (such as access to devices) to inform state and private investment in infrastructure; as well as partnering with organizations such as BootUpPD, which provides resources for educators to teach coding, and CS Unplugged, which teaches computer science through engaging games and puzzles.

The master plan’s data and reporting section includes several goals, such as the collection of usable data on the availability of computer science teaching by region, usable and relevant information to implement a statewide collaboration of computer science education, and data around what computer science is being taught in elementary schools.

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