by Malcolm Hong
A strong workforce is the lifeblood that fuels the growth of a healthy state economy. However, according to non-profit Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America (ASTRA), Idaho is projected to grow the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs to 88,630 by 2025. Because of the dynamics of administering a robust education in a rural state, Idaho has several challenges to overcome to create the talent required to fill these positions. But thanks to the efforts of the Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA), the talent gap is getting smaller each day.
The Idaho Digital Learning Academy is Idaho’s state sponsored online school created by the Idaho Legislature in 2002. IDLA accomplishes its mission through providing online courses, professional development for educators, and support for integrating technology in schools. For a rural state like Idaho, where it can be difficult for small school districts to gain access to advanced classes or professional training, IDLA is a game changer. In the first year of enrollment, IDLA served 850 students, today, 25,480 students are enrolled.
As part of its mission, IDLA seeks to expand course offerings in areas that urgently need to be filled in Idaho schools. Through its involvement in the community, leaders of IDLA were invited to join the education committee organized through the Idaho Technology Council (ITC). Members of IDLA and the ITC agreed that providing greater access to computer science education would not only prepare Idaho students for jobs of the future, but also provide opportunities to build foundational skills relevant for all future careers.
Blaine Bergeson, one of the committee chairs, explained, “Most students will not graduate with a degree in computer science, but that is not the main purpose for teaching computer science to all students at all grade levels. It should be taught to all students because it develops fundamental skills in creativity, logic, collaboration, and both verbal and written communication. I know of no other subject that has the ability to develop such a broad set of skills that are foundational to many fields of study and has become essential in almost all careers and entertainment.”
Industry members, led by the ITC, had already created a strong foundation to build on. Through the strong collaboration between industry, school districts, and state government, Idaho became one of the first states to allow computer science to count as a core graduation requirement for high schools. In addition, Idaho was making significant progress in developing certification pathways for computer science teachers and in allocating funding for computer science professional development. With these initiatives underway, the next step was finding a way for each Idaho school to gain access to computer science courses.
Shortly after IDLA joined the education committee, ITC leadership had just finished vetting different computer science education programs for Idaho. The committee recommended using Code.org, a non-profit organization which provides free and accredited curriculum for computer science education. The main obstacle to implementing Code.org’s curriculum was the requirement for each individual school district to sign a partnership agreement. Because of the requirements for district partnership, there was a significant obstacle for small Idaho districts to gain access to Code.org’s considerable resources.
Enter IDLA’s innovative solution: Recognize IDLA as a regional partner and use their organization as the vehicle to distribute Code.org curriculum to all students throughout Idaho. Code.org had never signed a statewide partnership before, but they were intrigued by the possibility. After Hadi Partovi, the CEO of Code.org, met with IDLA’s Board of Directors in the Fall of 2014, he became supportive of creating a strong partnership that would benefit Idaho students.
After the partnership was signed, Idaho made tremendous strides to make computer science education available to students throughout the state and in training educators to teach the specialized curriculum. Prior to the Code.org partnership, there were only six teachers in the entire state qualified to teach computer science. After the first year of Code.org implementation, there were 35 qualified teachers, and that number has steadily increased as more educators see the value of providing computer science classes to their students. To date, Idaho has funded training to four hundred K-12 teachers over the past 16 months. Most importantly, Idaho students are taking advantage of the opportunities that have opened up through access to computer science courses. For the Boise School District, within only one year, the number of students in these courses has skyrocketed from 40 to 370.
Such rapid growth has not gone unnoticed. In 2015, Code.org’s Hadi Partovi returned to Idaho as a guest speaker for the Idaho Technology Council’s Hall of Fame Featuring the Idaho Innovation Awards. During his remarks, Partovi praised Idaho for being one of the top three states in the country for making progress in advancing computer science education. Such high praise places Idaho on nearly equal footing with Washington and Arkansas, states that have benefited from the advocacy of corporate titans like Amazon.com and Wal-Mart.
This progress is only made possible through IDLA’s innovative model, which is particularly effective in supporting students in rural areas. Because of IDLA’s expertise, Code.org invited them to present at the Professional Learning Partner event, hosted at the White House earlier this year. At this panel discussion, they had the opportunity to discuss best practices for the regional implementation of computer science. Their insights helped Code.org develop a new Regional Partner program, which will help others follow Idaho’s example in providing computer science education statewide.
Nimisha Roy, Regional Manager at Code.org, explained, “The experiences we have with partners like IDLA help us shape and build new statewide partnerships. IDLA is a pioneer in helping us establish what statewide partnerships look like at Code.org, and what they have the potential to achieve.” Applications for Code.org’s new program will open in April 2017, and was made possible through Idaho ingenuity helping lead the way.
IDLA’s track record of success can also be attributed to its strong collaboration between key stakeholders, including industry, school districts, and Idaho state government. Through these strategic relationships, IDLA has gained valuable connections with policymakers and gathered insights to help develop new courses and programs. Through successfully leveraging these partnerships, IDLA has helped position Idaho as a national leader in growing a well-educated, tech-savvy future workforce.
Looking towards the future, it’s clear that the rapid adoption of computer science education will only mean good things for Idaho. Computer science impacts the educational experience through teaching relevant skills and preparing students for the 21st century workforce. The thousands of companies that call Idaho home will ultimately benefit from a robust and well-educated talent pool, thanks to the innovation of the Idaho Digital Learning Academy.