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ASMSA ‘Coding Arkansas’ Future’ through new program
ASMSA ‘Coding Arkansas’ Future’ through new program

HOT SPRINGS – The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts will serve as a leading provider of computer science education and educator training in the state through its “Coding Arkansas’ Future” program.

Coding Arkansas’ Future will provide expanded computer science education courses for schools across Arkansas through ASMSA’s digital learning program. ASMSA will also provide training, support and mentoring to teachers across the state in computer science. Bob Gregory, ASMSA’s dean of academic affairs, announced the new program during the school’s annual Community of Learning Luncheon, which featured Gov. Asa Hutchinson as the guest speaker at the Arlington Hotel on Friday.

“Similar to the ASMSA ethos of investing centrally in resources to benefit students from across the state, we believe a focused investment in course development and teacher training will produce greater results for districts across Arkansas who are eager to lead the way but may lack the adequate expertise and resources to meet their students’ needs. That’s why I’m excited that this program will be offered at no cost to partner schools,” Gregory said.

The overarching goal of Coding Arkansas’ Future is to guide 10 districts through the first cycle of teaching the state’s new Essentials of Computer Programming course while preparing them to move ahead independently in subsequent years, Gregory said. A new cohort of teachers will begin the process the following year. As such, the program could annually increase by at least 200 the number of students studying coding if each new teacher introduces the subject to 20 students in their school.

To put it into context, fewer than 500 high school students took a class in coding last year. Of that number, 25 percent of the state’s computer science students were enrolled in ASMSA’s residential program. There are about two dozen districts in Arkansas currently offering computer science classes. While some teachers have said they will grow the opportunities at their schools, other districts that lack the technical and human resources have chosen to use Virtual Arkansas as a turnkey solution.

“We quickly realized that the state needed an option somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum,” Gregory said. “For ASMSA, supporting teachers who want nothing less than to engage, challenge and inspire students is the heart of everything we do. Why limit that to just our campus? 

“Students will be the beneficiaries of Coding Arkansas’ Future, but we believe the real difference is providing support to the teachers who are the risk-takers, innovators and intellectual entrepreneurs who will help Governor Hutchinson achieve this vision.”

Faculty in the program will have monthly planning, strategy and reflection sessions using digital conferencing tools. ASMSA will offer a one-week, residential professional development program in late July for faculty from schools participating in the program. Housing in ASMSA’s Student Center and meals will be provided at no cost to participating districts.

Through collaboration with the Arkansas Computer Science Teachers Association, the goal is to build a professional development network for these pioneering teachers, Gregory said. Among the schools that have already agreed to participate in the program are Hot Springs High School, Rivercrest High School, East End High School, Cossatot River High School and Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter.

In addition to the faculty development program, school districts may also choose to participate in ASMSA’s digital learning program which will offer Essentials of Computer Programming courses taught solely by ASMSA faculty members. The course is included in the STEM Pathways program, which offers several STEM science and math courses at no cost to Arkansas school districts. To learn more about ASMSA’s digital learning opportunities, visit asmsa.org/outreach/digital-learning.

To facilitate the development of Coding Arkansas’ Future, Daniel Moix, a member of ASMSA’s Class of 1998 and a state and nationally recognized innovator in the field of computer science, will lead the program. Moix’s primary responsibility will be course development and teacher support for the Essentials of Computer Programming class for 2015-16 and beyond. Moix most recently served as a faculty member at Bryant High School.

“We are impressed with his level of coding knowledge, professional experience and comfort in mentoring as well as leading professional development. … We look forward to him being one of the state’s most vocal cheerleaders for increasing access to coding,” Gregory said of Moix.

In February, Gov. Hutchinson signed Act 187 into law that requires all public and charter high schools in Arkansas to offer computer science education courses beginning with the 2015-16 academic year. The course may be counted as a math credit for students’ graduation requirements. The law fulfilled a 2014 campaign promise to increase computer science education opportunities within the state.

Hutchinson also created a Computer Science Education Task Force to research and recommend computer science and technology standards; study the computer science and technology needs of the state; and recommend strategies to meet the anticipated computer science and technology workforce needs of the state.

Carl Frank, an ASMSA computer science instructor and president of the state’s Computer Science Teachers Association, is serving as a member of that task force. 

Hutchinson praised the work ASMSA has done in providing computer science education to its students. He said the school is serving as a leader in innovation and developing entrepreneurs.

“We are expanding what you started. It’s inspirational; continue to lead us,” Hutchinson said. 

Hutchinson said he would like to increase the number of students who have computer programming skills to 20 percent of graduates. That would produce about 6,000 graduates a year who are ready for tech jobs in the state.

“Can you imagine what kind of impact that would have on our economy?” he said.

ASMSA Director Corey Alderdice said this is an important time in the state in regard to computer science education.

“The rest of the state is catching up to a fact we have known for over 20 years – engaging students as not only users but also creators of technology is an essential component in developing a talented and innovative workforce,” Alderdice said.

ASMSA is in a unique position to engage students and educators across the state in computer science.

“Together, we will inspire the next generation of innovators and makers,” Gregory said. “By pairing the expertise and resources available at ASMSA with the interest and enthusiasm from educators and districts throughout the state, we will work together to achieve the governor’s vision of coding Arkansas’ future.”

Hutchinson also had a request of the ASMSA students who were in the audience. He acknowledged that educational and job opportunities will entice them to leave the state. However once they are ready to begin entrepreneurial endeavors, he asked that they return to their home state.

“Some of you are going to be tempted by the world beyond Arkansas,” he said. “That’s OK. Let me just ask you that whenever you finish your education and you start that entrepreneurial spirit, come back to Arkansas. We want those jobs, and we want that next Silicon Valley right here.”

The program also featured District 26 state Rep. Laurie Rushing, who served as mistress of ceremonies and is the mother of a 2004 alumna. “This school is part of the entire state,” she said. “If all of the state representatives go back to their districts, they will find the heart of ASMSA in their area.”

Will Watson, a 2005 alumnus and a member of the ASMSA Board of Visitors, spoke about his experience as a student at the school. His said ASMSA changed his life by offering opportunities he would not have if he didn’t attend the school, including discovering his love of languages and competing in the 2005 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

“Any successes I have enjoyed as a student and professional are shared successes with the school at the end of Central Avenue right here in Hot Springs,” he said. “ASMSA inspired me to give back to my community, to appreciate education and to never take for granted the opportunities that we are blessed with, and often have to work so hard to attain.”

Watson encouraged those in attendance to make an investment in the students of Arkansas by making a gift to ASMSA. He said it wasn’t just an investment in ASMSA, but “in our own futures, and I believe that is one of the most important investments any of us can make.”