Companies back UT Gov.’s call for more school tech

FILE PHOTO - This photo taken Nov. 25, 2013 shows Isabelle Fontana, 7, working on two iPads for an e-book about Thanksgiving in her second grade classroom at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va. Interactive digital learning on laptops and tablets is, in many cases, replacing traditional textbooks. Students are taking computer-based tests instead of fill-in-the bubble exams. Teachers are accessing far-off resources for lessons. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Utah students will get their hands on more laptops, digital tablets like iPads and tech-geared lessons if state lawmakers heed amplified cries from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

Private companies Thursday began broadcasting the message that reverberated in Herbert’s annual address to the legislature that evening: Utah businesses need more tech and math-savvy workers to fill today’s jobs.

Herbert kicked off the $2.5 million campaign Thursday paid for by businesses with roots or branches in Utah, including Comcast and Goldman Sachs.

“We need more scientists. We need more technicians. We need more engineers,” Herbert told about 100 fifth- and sixth-graders in a school gymnasium at science-focused public school Neil Armstrong Academy.

The renewed cries for more digital and science-minded lessons will land in family living rooms over the next two years in a series of TV commercials, said Michael Sullivan, spokesman for the governor’s office that oversees partnerships between the state and private businesses. The message will also splash across billboards statewide.

“We’re trying to help the parents of these students understand that there’s a future path” in sciences, said Sullivan, “and to encourage the kids that technology and geeky stuff is cool” with help from other such companies as Ebay, Adobe, Boeing and Energy Solutions, all with operations in Utah.

More state and business leaders have rallied behind the call in recent years. But too much focus on computer-related fields, critics say, could deprive students reading and writing skills and could neglect school issues that may soon need urgent care.

Parents aren’t the only forces Herbert is asking to back the effort. The governor this year wants legislators to set aside $4.5 million in state funds for science, technology and math programs for Utah students.

Last year, the legislature poured $10 million toward school tech initiatives, in part to fund a center tasked with developing new math lessons.

Herbert says equipping students with digital classrooms and better science lessons are key tools in reaching the state’s goal of two thirds of Utah residents earning some kind of secondary degree by 2020. That goal includes a broad range of certificates, from mechanic’s licenses to advanced engineering degrees.

The initiative echoes cries from the software and medical industries, whose leaders say they will soon need more workers with at least a basic understanding of computer science and a strong background in mathematics and logic.

Nationally, Utah ranks in the middle of the pack for its number of science, technology and math initiatives, according to a 2013 report from the Georgia Tech Research Institute. By 2018, Utah will have about 100,000 jobs in those fields, estimates a separate report from the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America.

Most schools have at least a few digital tablets to pass around, but competition for time in the computer lab is mounting, said Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson, who chairs the committee tasked with divvying up state dollars for public schools.

It isn’t the first time that private businesses have chipped in. In the last two years, some Utah schools split the bill with the legislature for a school-tech outfitter campus to swap blackboards for glowing smart screens and provide iPads to each student, among other updates.

Parents shouldn’t worry about undue influence from the companies on Utah schools, Sullivan said, because teachers and school officials choose what goes into daily lessons.

More emphasis on new ways to teach math and science to youngsters could prevent more students from dropping out of high school down the road, said Deon Turley, the education commissioner for the Utah Parent Teacher Association.

“If they struggle with math and science in their early years, they think, `I’m never gonna catch up. Why do this? I’m not going to graduate.’ And they drop out of school,” she said.

Democrat Sen. Patricia Jones praised the governor for prioritizing education, but she said other issues are mounting, including recruiting more teachers, funding the arts and hiring more school counselors to monitor students’ mental health. Other students, she noted, want to pursue studies outside the tech realm.

“I know that it’s in the future,” she said. “But I think it’s limiting when we only focus on STEM.”

Turley agreed. “You can be a brilliant scientist. But if you can’t write,” she said, “then no one knows what you’re doing.”

Leaders acknowledge that much of the work lies in convincing schoolchildren that science isn’t just for the nerds.

“Remember,” Herbert told students Thursday. “Science, technology, engineering and math are cool, all right?”

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