As we near the end of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s time in office, I’d like to applaud his administration’s work to expand computer science and STEM education in Arkansas. One look at the numbers tells the story of that effort’s continuing success, and points the way forward as we welcome the administration of Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
When Hutchinson launched The Arkansas Kids Can Code Initiative and its statewide push for expanded computer science education in 2015, Arkansas’ public schools had fewer than 50 computer science teachers, with only about 500 high school students enrolled in computer science courses statewide. As of October 2022, more than 800 certified computer science teachers now work in our public schools, with over 23,500 kids enrolled in at least one computer science class this semester. That’s up from around 12,500 students just a year before.
It’s having a real impact on college degree paths and careers. According to data from the National Science Foundation, between 2014-2022, the percentage of total higher education diplomas that went to science and engineering graduates in Arkansas rose by 1.6 percent. STEM degrees are now more than a quarter of all degrees conferred in our state.
It’s a win for both Arkansas and our economy. By exposing a generation of young learners to the possibility and promise of computer science education, these efforts will go a long way toward kick-starting our state’s STEM workforce supply chain. Many Arkansans who found a love of coding or computer science in high school are now entering the job market as STEM-prepared college graduates. They’re helping create Arkansas’ growing ecosystem of next-generation businesses.
In the past, Arkansas businesses in STEM fields often had to source employees from out of state. With only a paycheck to keep them here, many of those recruits stayed in Arkansas only a few years before leaving for other opportunities. That “boomerang effect” has kept many high-tech companies in the state a bit off-kilter, locked in a constant struggle to attract, recruit, compete for and retain scarce talent from afar. That could be especially challenging for startups, which are vital to creating the economy of tomorrow.
Today, thanks to our state’s efforts to give more high school students an opportunity to pursue computer science and a gateway to STEM education, Arkansas is producing homegrown talent whose family ties and deep roots will keep them here in Arkansas. A steady source of these skilled workers not only fosters the workforce accessibility that attracts investment and helps businesses grow, it’s also spawning an interconnected sphere of STEM-based businesses and startups in our state. With them come the high-paying, high-tech jobs that will help stop our state’s tech-degree “brain drain,” allowing more Arkansans with in-demand skills to stay close to home while pursuing their careers.
At UA Little Rock, we’re helping keep higher education’s link in the STEM supply chain strong. UA Little Rock’s Department of Computer Science rose 18 spots in the most recent U.S. News and World Report list of the best undergraduate computer science programs in the nation, and we launched our first bachelor’s degree program in cybersecurity last year. We’re also exploring ways to make STEM courses more accessible, more approachable and less boring for college students to help them succeed.
Led by chemistry professor Dr. Mark Baillie, Ph.D., a multidisciplinary team at UA Little Rock was recently awarded a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study and develop active learning techniques for university-level STEM courses, with a particular focus on helping underserved and first-generation college students succeed in STEM. We have reconfigured our biology undergraduate degree to offer a “clinical biology” concentration to prepare students for a high-demand career path in addition to our pre-med tracks. Also, our construction management program has partnered with Vilonia High School to provide a pathway for yet another in-demand career.
If you’re one of those people who’s thinking “science and math are supposed to be boring” right now, maybe you had the wrong teacher. Studies show that college students are 1.5 times more likely to receive a passing grade in courses that employ active learning techniques like lively discussions, problem solving, real-world case studies and role-playing when compared to lecture-based courses.
As we change the STEM classroom where college students get and stay as excited about science as your average 10-year-old, we’ll help hundreds more succeed in STEM majors and minors every year. That’s a ticket to high-paying careers, a more vibrant state economy and a more prosperous future for all Arkansans.
Lawrence E. Whitman, Ph.D., P.E., is dean of the Donaghey College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
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