Gov. Asa Hutchinson is touting his computer coding initiative among his target audience: students. He began his “Governor’s Coding Tour” Monday with visits to Benton and Bryant and will visit Manila Tuesday and Spring Hill near Hope on Wednesday.
Hutchinson pushed during his 2014 campaign for governor a requirement that all Arkansas high schools offer a computer science course, his inspiration being his 11-year-old granddaughter who wrote a smartphone application for his campaign. He signed a bill into law in 2015 that made Arkansas the first state where all high schools offer the course. About 4,000 students took coding classes in 2015-16 – a 260% increase from the previous year. Students taking the course receive a core math or science credit. He has set a goal of 6,000 annual enrollees.
Hutchinson told the assembled students that computer coding is a path to a good-paying job, saying that 1 million jobs are expected to be unfilled in computer science in the coming years. He added, “You might be the next Bill Gates that will create a company that will hire other technologists, other software writers and code writers, and you will create jobs and wealth, and you can do it right here in Arkansas.”
He described himself as a “farm boy from Gravette” who was appointed by President George W. Bush as the Department of Homeland Security’s undersecretary for border and transportation security after the September 11 attacks. He said rather than inspecting each of the millions of containers coming into America’s ports, software was used to predict and prevent terrorist attacks. He said farmers use software applications to determine how much water to use, and manufacturing is based on computer-controlled robotics.
Asked afterward why he needed to tell students about the importance of coding, Hutchinson said students should understand “the connection between their technology that they live by, and how that technology comes about.”
“It’s creating the demand – creating the demand among the students for computer science, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, because I know that educators and teachers respond to the demands of students,” he said.
Hutchinson told the the assembly that 15 Benton High students took computer coding last year through the state’s Virtual Arkansas online education course. Through a grant, a Benton teacher, Lauren Roseberry, became certified to teach the class in person, and now 28 students are enrolled this year.
At the beginning of his address, Hutchinson asked how many students had an interest in coding. A “smattering” raised their hands, as he described it. He asked for another show of hands after his address and a code.org video featuring Gates, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and others. More students indicated an interest.
Asked by a student why Benton High was the first school on his tour. Hutchinson said it was chosen because of its reputation as a good school, because of its growth from 15 to 28 students, and because it is lagging behind other schools, including Bentonville, Crossett and much smaller Hamburg.