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Though national media outlets found this surprising, the first state to make a serious and substantial investment in STEM education wasn't California, New York, or Massachusetts. It was Arkansas.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's choice to make computer science classes available in all of the state's K-12 schools was an investment in the future of the state, as well as a vote of confidence in the innovation and creativity of its students.

Students haven't proved him wrong. Between 2015--when the state rolled out this computer science program--and 2018, enrollment soared by an astounding 620 percent. And in the last three years, high school graduation rates have consistently risen in parallel.

As exciting as this is, we cannot stop there. If we want to ready our students for long-term career success, we need to expand their STEM education options further, giving them convenient access to a wider range of related subjects and academic pathways.

Currently, only a limited number of courses satisfy the state's computer science education requirement: AP computer science, robotics, mobile application development, and computer science courses. The courses focus on coding and programming, networking and hardware, and information security.

That might sound like a lot, but what happens when an excited and inspired student completes all the courses available? What happens when their school only offers one of those options? Must they wait until college to further their education in this critical field?

The answer, I'm happy to say, is absolutely not. We can help students build on the basics they've learned in their local high schools by offering tuition-free online classes aligned with the IT industry's needs. Instead of spending time in electives they're not interested in or shelling out thousands of dollars for community college or university courses, students in even the most rural parts of the state can jump-start their computer science career while they're working toward their high school diploma.

Considering the average Arkansas college grad owes $26,561 and more than one in 10 default on their student loans, opportunities like these are vital.

Online education--exclusively, or in a blended learning brick-and-mortar environment--also offers a personalized approach, allowing students to chart their own path toward academic and career success. Typically on their own time, students can partake in these courses at their convenience, allowing them to play sports, join clubs and socialize outside of usual school hours.

It also gives students access to a network of support, ranging from advisers and counselors to peers who share their interests. This exposes them to a broader range of people and opportunities, while allowing them to stay connected with local friends and classmates.

Digital curriculum isn't limited to computer- and IT-related subjects. We can also offer students an opportunity to learn about careers in other industries like health care, agriculture, manufacturing and business. Just like IT, these industries have a shortage of skilled workers and have specific lessons/certifications students need to go through before they try to get a job.

Sometimes that means going to college for four years, but other times it means participating in a training program and/or getting an associate degree. Whatever the case may be, online offerings enable us to give students these insights sooner, also opening the door to opportunities for hands-on, work-based learning. This allows students to test the waters before committing to a major or career, and it also allows employers to find promising talent.

When asked what inspired him to prioritize computer science education, Gov. Hutchinson pointed to his granddaughter, who at the age of 11 built a mobile app for his campaign. His approach is on point.

The innovation of younger generations should inspire us to embrace innovation ourselves. We've already embraced and benefited from a focus on computer science, and now, we must take things one step further: offering courses serving IT and other industries in an online environment.

Amy Johnson is head of school at Arkansas Virtual Academy, a tuition-free public charter school powered by K12, Inc.

Editorial on 10/13/2019

Print Headline: Expanding tech education options

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