Head of the Class

Leaders look to Arizona students for ways to shape the future

by Don Rodriguez

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Jeremy Babendure and Dominique Browning at the KAET-TV studios

Capturing the attention of the White House and Gov. Doug Ducey. That’s not bad for the inaugural year of a special program whose participants aren’t even old enough to vote.

These are just a few highlights of the very much non-partisan Chief Science Officers (CSO) program that, in its first year, counted more than 130 sixth- through twelfth-grade students throughout Arizona chosen by their peers to represent their schools in STEM and innovation. Organizers anticipate more than 500 CSOs will be participating within a few years.

Little did organizers know that the program’s trajectory would get a boost when President Barack Obama  made his final State of the Union Address earlier this year and included the goal of every American student having the opportunity to learn computer science. The CSO program later was cited as one of the commitments from more than 200 organizations to support the president’s new program targeting compuer science education.

Fast forward to late October when the Arizona Capitol was to be the scene of the first CSO Statewide Cabinet Meeting. A planned highlight was participants collectively developing an action proposal for Ducey’s consideration.

As Jeremy Babendure, executive director of the Arizona Technology Council Foundation and Arizona SciTech, explained in a recent episode of KAET-TV’s “Horizon” public affairs show, putting students in charge of their destinies seemed like a natural development. “We’re always talking about what do we want to do with kids but often we never see kids in the room,” he says. “We’re brainstorming but never hear from the kids, so why not create an avenue for kids to figure out who is their voice for STEM innovation.”

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The CSO program was started by Arizona SciTech, which is supported by the foundation.

Babendure was joined on the show by Dominique Browning, a CSO at Casa Verde High School of STEM in Casa Grande, who shared how she gets other students interested in STEM. “I’ll show you the world around you,” she says. “I’ll give you a different way of trying to think of how things work. Just even your cellphone — that is completely engineered and you’re on it all the time, so you can’t have that without STEM.”

Farther Reach

Ultimately, what happens is students are not only convincing their peers but also entire communities — even those beyond Arizona. “Having a well-spoken student in settings like this on TV or conferences, at the White House,” Babendure says, “having well-spoken students in the community is not something that we adults think about. It’s helping to change our thinking about kids to be part of that conversation.”

His reference to the White House stems from Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith learning about it firsthand — twice. Browning was one of six students who went to Washington, D.C., in mid-May to promote their program to Arizona’s congressional delegation as well as members of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is where Smith’s team is stationed. The students were accompanied by Babendure and Foundation CEO Steven G. Zylstra.

Smith then made the trip west to address the CSO Summer Institute at Grand Canyon University in July. Her words went beyond the campus. Through the cooperation of the Arizona Telemedicine Program that provided the videoconferencing and distance learning technology, Smith’s and other presentations made during the institute were shared with students from surrounding states who were interested in creating their own CSO programs.

As Browning explains, “The Summer Institute is where you learn all of these different skills that you need in order to perform the tasks that you need later in the year.” In addition, Babendure says, “What’s cool about the institute is we garner a lot of support from the SciTech Festival. And we’re getting people to come in and work with the students, networking and PR.”

The CSO program is one way to address a growing need for a trained workforce. According to the White House, there are nearly a half-million open technology jobs in the nation today, with that number projected to more than double within the next four years. These jobs pay 50 percent more than the average private-sector job.

However, to get those jobs, the right skills are needed. A recent analysis of 26 million job postings found that nearly half of all the jobs in the top quartile in pay require some coding knowledge or skills. By 2018, just over half of all STEM jobs are projected to be in a computer science-related field. While more than nine in ten parents want computer science taught at their child’s school, by some estimates only a quarter of K-12 schools offer such courses with programming included.

CSforAll

The Arizona Technology Council and its partners also are playing a role to help meet the need. All were represented when the White House hosted a summit this summer for Computer Science for All, or CSforAll, the president’s initiative to empower K-12 students to learn computer science so they gain the skills needed to be creators in the new digital economy.

Zylstra was invited to the meeting as a guest of Linda Coyle, director of education at Science Foundation Arizona, and Kathryn Scott, director of the Strategic Educational Alliances department at Grand Canyon University. Science Foundation Arizona and the university have been recognized by Code.org, a key partner in CSforAll, as Arizona’s Professional Learning Partners.

The Council is familiar with the cause. It gave its support when an initiative allowing computer science as Arizona high schools’ fourth math credit was making its way through the Legislature in 2014. Also, its foundation has funded the expansion of a Mesa-based middle school coding program into Scottsdale and Tempe. Zylstra also will co-chair the advisory board of the upcoming Arizona Science and Engineering Fair, which, like all fairs of this type, expects computer science to become a regular component.

Coyle, Scott and Zylstra were in good company at the gathering in Washington, D.C., where they had the opportunity to meet and talk with many of the people like Smith who have their shoulder behind CSforAll on a national basis. One of the factoids delivered to all to help drive home the importance of their efforts was that computer science is the first new subject being added to the K-12 curriculum in a century.

It actually goes beyond just being a subject, Zylstra says. “Computer science, including learning to code, is a mechanism to solve problems. The more capable you are, the farther ahead you’ll be in the 21st century,” he says. “In this emerging world of Internet of Things and digitization of everything, it’s going to be important that we all get exposure — and move forward.”

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