Ignister is a new program that pushes for computer science classes to count as a core curriculum toward high school graduation, aiming for related skills to grow into new tech jobs that will foster a younger workforce.

May 03, 2021 • Megan Stringer, The Wichita Eagle

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(TNS) — Two years ago, Nick Poels decided he wanted K-12 students in his rural Kansas community of 2,500 to learn to code. Kids in Phillipsburg soon had a brand-new computer lab, and Poels hoped 20 or 30 children might use it.

“Within two weeks of school starting, we had 351 students involved,” he said.

Poels quickly realized he had touched on something.

At the time he was the economic development director for Phillips County, in north-central Kansas. Now he’s working with nonprofit NetWork Kansas on a new project to bring computer science education to K-12 schools across the state, with support from the Kansas Department of Commerce.

The first focus of his new project, dubbed Ignister, is to push for computer science classes to count as a core curriculum toward high school graduation in Kansas. He believes those skills among Kansas residents, from rural Phillipsburg to Wichita’s urban core, will eventually transfer into new tech jobs that will give a younger Kansas workforce a reason to remain in the state or return later in life.

“Every single rural community in Kansas, whether they like to admit it or not, is plagued with an outward migration of youth,” Poels said. “They get through high school, a large percentage of them go off to learn a skill and they don’t come back.”

Kansas has seen high levels of residents leaving the state in the last five years, ranking 44th in the country for new migration, according to the state’s Framework for Growth. The economic development strategic plan, released in February, showed how population loss can threaten the overall economy. The working-age population in Kansas is expected to decline 2.3% by 2028.

Concerns about automation in manufacturing and aviation — which have long dominated the local economy in Wichita and Kansas — have led Kansas workers to consider retraining and community leaders to push for economic diversification.

But if computer science education can expand remote tech jobs at home, then younger, more educated workers might not have to move away for work. The goal is to make young Kansans eligible for the growing share of remote jobs around the country.

Education is only one piece of the puzzle, though. While Poels is starting his focus there, he and other Kansas tech supporters agree that retraining existing workers for skills in tech-forward jobs will help them transition and remain employed in the state.

“How do we take the model that we’ve created in Phillipsburg, develop upon it and then bring that to any community in Kansas?” Poels said.

K-12 Education

Kansas is one of just two states, along with Connecticut, that doesn’t recognize computer science classes as a core curriculum toward high school graduation, according to code.org, a nonprofit that advocates for expanded access to computer science.

Flagship Kansas.tech wants to change that by the end of the 2021-22 school year, said executive director Ashley Scheideman. The Wichita-based nonprofit, which launched in January 2019, is trying to promote Kansas as a viable tech hub.

Tech companies are already in Kansas, although the state isn’t top of mind when outsiders think of tech-centric communities, said Scheideman, a member of the advisory board for Ignister. Flagship Kansas.tech is focused on awareness, workforce and education.

Computer science education isn’t just about programming, said Scheideman. The classes teach critical thinking and problem solving — skills that transfer outside of the tech world.

“We want to really make sure we have that educational system in place that creates that pipeline for a robust workforce,” she said. “Kansans are hard workers. They are value-driven people. And if we provide them with the technological training and education they need, they’ll be desirable by companies outside of Kansas.”

Expanding computer science classes to all schools in the state isn’t quick or simple though. Professional development for teachers is a big barrier and a main focus for Ignister.

Stephen King agrees. He’s the education program consultant for computer science at the Kansas State Department of Education. Getting teachers certified and comfortable in teaching computer science has to be a main goal, he said. Extra training for such a large group of workers can take time and cost the state money.

“Not any one solution is going to fix this,” he said. “We have to approach it from several directions.”

One option is to add an endorsement for educators to teach computer science, or a subject added onto their license that shows what they’re qualified to teach.

Another route is to add onto the curriculum colleges teach educators when they’re still in school themselves. That could help future teachers feel more at ease in the classroom with computer science.

“I wish I could snap my fingers and make it happen tomorrow,” King said. “But progress has been made and things are falling into place.”

Poels sent out a survey late last year to ask K-12 computer science teachers what infrastructure exists and what should be developed to expand tech classes. Some educators teach remotely, he learned, and could work with districts across the state to implement virtual computer science courses.

The Kansas education department should encourage all schools to offer computer science, a task force told the state Board of Education in February 2020. Members also said the courses should satisfy a core graduation requirement.

King, whose position was created based on those recommendations, will offer further guidance for the state at a May 11 meeting.

Manufacturing and other industries expect workers to have technical skills, King said. For young Kansans who grow up to work in agriculture, aviation or other fields, computer science and technology will still affect their jobs.

“It’s no longer the geeky, nerdy thing to do,” Poels said of computer science and programming. “It’s an essential part of a career path.”

Retraining an existing workforce

Workers laid off from a job after 20 or 30 years often lack the technical skills required for a job search process or a new career, said Amanda Duncan, vice president and chief business development officer for the Workforce Alliance in Wichita.

Scheideman pointed to the workers who paint airplanes in aviation manufacturing. Someday soon, it’s possible a robot can do that job.

“But you’re going to need a person to program it, to troubleshoot it,” Scheideman said. “Those are technological jobs. If we can build that workforce, as other industries are adopting more technology and transforming, then we’ll help with that pipeline and help keep jobs here.”

Duncan agrees. She doesn’t think robots will affect the overall number of jobs.

“To move to automation in manufacturing, it’s actually not replacing any job,” she said. “Because you need a mechanic to fix the robot. It’s just changing the jobs.”

There will come a day when Spirit AeroSystems, Wichita’s largest employer, doesn’t need to hire 50 new workers to manufacture a plane with their hands — but does need to hire 50 software developers, Duncan said.

Earlier this year, the Workforce Alliance received its largest grant yet, nearly $10 million in federal funding, that will help retrain and educate workers at the intersection of advanced manufacturing and technology.

Tech employment isn’t limited to designing new apps or working for Google in Silicon Valley, Duncan and others said. It’s about employment here and now, in Wichita and across Kansas.

Curt Gridley and Tracy Hoover are working to grow the present tech community in Wichita. They cofounded Groover Labs in Old Town, what they call a collaborative tech hub with room for coworking, events, classes and a hands-on maker space.

The married couple previously worked in Boston’s tech industry but moved to Wichita when they wanted to be closer to family. They could have relocated back to the East Coast to start Groover Labs, but thought they would have a bigger impact in Wichita.

Gridley thinks there’s a huge opportunity for laid-off aviation workers. Wichita already has a growing cybersecurity sector and an entrepreneurial spirit, so there’s a chance to energize the community around new tech start-ups, he said.

That economic diversification would help Wichita’s existing industry in the future, Gridley and Hoover argued.

“Young people live in a tech-centric world,” Gridley said. “If that’s not taking hold here, then Wichita could feel out of step with the rest of the country.”

An outside example

Poels sees Arkansas as a model for his K-12 plan. Gov. Asa Hutchinson launched the Arkansas Computer Science Initiative in 2015.

In five years, the state has increased the number of credentialed computer science teachers from 6 to 492 and boosted high school computer science course offerings and student enrollment in those classes. Arkansas allowed for high school computer science teachers to apply for up to $10,000 in stipends over five years.

It’s too soon to tell if the state will see more young employees remain in Arkansas because of the initiative.

For now, officials there are focusing on increasing computer science enrollment at colleges and tech schools, as well as career development and internship opportunities.

Kansas doesn’t necessarily have to start from scratch because other states have already figured out how to fund these initiatives, sometimes through public and private sector partnerships, said Joy Eakins, president of Cornerstone Data in Wichita.

Scheideman and King agree. Both Kansas and Arkansas have many rural communities and a similar overall population.

“Arkansas was one of the first out of the gate with doing this,” King said. “I have plans to catch up.”

King is working on a five-year plan to expand computer science education in Kansas.

“My dream is to someday soon have every single kid in the state of Kansas have a computer science course available to them,” he said.

‘A big job ahead’

More people moved away from Kansas last year than moved into the state, according to a 2020 study from United Van Lines. The primary reason for moving — in or out of the state — was related to a job. Kansas made the list for the top 10 outbound states in the country last year.

The tech education and training sought by Ignister and collaborators like Flagship Kansas.tech aim to change that. Computer science and coding jobs can be done from anywhere in the country with a stable broadband connection.

Ignister is still in its early stages, though, and Poels knows he has to bite off the project in small chunks. It won’t work if teachers don’t have access to professional development and if the larger community isn’t aware of new resources available to them.

For now, he is bringing everyone together at one table to have conversations about what will work and what won’t. That communication is key to the whole project, he said.

“This is such a collaborative initiative,” Poels said. “There are so many different intricacies that have to work together for this to be successful.

“We’ve got a big job ahead of us, but I honestly believe we’re heading down the right track.”

(c)2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.