The Arkansas governor, first lady and the lieutenant governor all visited Pine Bluff on Friday to talk about education and technology.
Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin is a big fan of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and spent some time talking about it Friday at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, meanwhile, attended a computer coding event at Pine Bluff High School to encourage students to take computer science classes.
“I love STEM,” Griffin said when he addressed about 200 female students attending the seventh Girls of Promise Coding Summit at UAPB. “Almost every good-paying job involves STEM. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.”
He listed some examples of those jobs, including medical coding, which involves biology and chemistry among others.
Griffin said cars are safer now thanks to research that involves engineering and math, and the advancements in computers and cell phones came about because of STEM-based research.
The event was held at the STEM building on campus, and Griffin said that computers were used to design it, specifically the roof, so that “it will not cave in.”
The half-day seminar was sponsored by the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, an organization whose mission, according to a press release, is to “promote and foster programs, activities, and opportunities that expand and strengthen the role of women and girls in Arkansas.”
Regarding the emphasis on exposing female students to STEM, Griffin said that if a person were to question every high school graduate in Arkansas, about half of the males would say they were interested in a career such as engineering or technology while for female students, only one in eight would say they were interested.
Griffin said his oldest daughter has become interested in science project kits, and whenever he looks at the Amazon or Walmart online shopping carts, he sees that while she has not bought any, she has put some in the cart hoping her parents would take the hint.
“If she decided that she wanted to pursue English as a career that would be great, but I don’t want her to make a choice without looking at all the information and knowing that there are other options,” Griffin said.
He said that one of his jobs as lieutenant governor is to try and help the state prosper, and that means seeing that good, well-paying jobs are available.
Before being elected to his present position, Griffin served in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the Second Congressional District and was United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. He was reelected to a second term in the November General Election.
“We’ve got to grow jobs,” Griffin said. “We’ve got to attract to the state good-paying jobs. We don’t have enough workers with a STEM background. There’s a big demand for coding and we need more individuals going into STEM.”
Anna Beth Gorman, the executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, said, “As the language of computer programming becomes more and more relevant to future career pathways, the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, through our Girls of Promise Initiative, will work to ensure that our girls are given opportunities to become fluent in this digital language.”
In addition to Griffin, Susan Hutchinson, the wife of Governor Hutchinson, participated in the program, and the students participated in a “Million Women Mentors” lunch, where a panel of successful women discussed emerging opportunities for women in STEM professions.”
Over at Pine Bluff High School, the governor said that Arkansas is leading the nation in computer science education and he wants more students at Pine Bluff High to take computer coding courses.
“There’s so much talent in Pine Bluff, there’s a great need for computer programmers — great job opportunities,” Hutchinson said. “I was just so excited about the students and their interest and their understanding of it. They have a great teacher, so there’s a lot of opportunity here.”
Hutchinson said it is anticipated that there will be one million unfilled computer coding jobs available nationwide within the next 10 years. According to code.org, a non-profit that focuses on expanding access to computer science in schools across the nation and increasing the participation of women and underrepresented minorities, the advanced placement exam in computer science has the worst gender diversity for high school students. The exam revealed a 78 percent participation for men, 22 percent for women and 13 percent for students of color. Those underrepresented groups represent 65 percent of the United States population.
Shanta Calhoun, the computer science teacher at Pine Bluff High, said the computer programming class is new and they use code modules on code.org to teach students the basics.
“The students learn the basics of coding,” she said. “They learn coding language and coding software, and at each step, the kids learn a little bit more about coding.”
Hutchinson said that since last year there has been a decrease in the number of students taking computer science classes.
“Last year, we had 42 students taking computer science here in Pine Bluff, and this year is 19. That’s one of the reasons I came here,” Hutchinson said. “I want that number to grow — not every student wants to get into computer coding and science. There’s a lot of different interest, but there are some students that really take to it … so sometimes they aren’t exposed enough to it or they don’t understand the opportunity, so I want to come here just to encourage the students and the teachers also and let them know that the state will support them.”
Hutchinson said there is grant money for teacher professional development and even assistance in purchasing equipment for a robotics program that Calhoun said she would like to see at the school.
Calhoun said the lack of participation is due to the students’ lack of understanding of what computer coding entails.
“This is the third or fourth year that the school has offered computer science, so we are hoping that us having this event and other events with the students that it will encourage other students to want to learn how to code and to get into the class,” Calhoun said.
Data on code.org suggests that the underrepresentation of minorities in computer science isn’t about lack of interest. An analysis run on high school students that are taking computer science principles showed that underrepresented minorities sign up for code.org computer science courses at a higher rate than national data suggests.
Hutchinson said computer science is a self-taught area that allows students to go at their own pace by teaching themselves at home or the library, but it is helpful for students to have access to a teacher at their school or access to extra classes at UAPB or Southeast Arkansas College.
Calhoun said she has a partnership with instructors at UAPB and it has been a great resource that helps keep the students interested and motivated.
“Dr. Walker and Mr. Carter over at UAPB actually bring over computer science students from the university once a week on Thursday and they work with the kids in my coding club. They have been great resources for me and they come over and the kids are overly excited because they know they are going to get to learn programming from college students.”