- Associated Press - Thursday, January 30, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced a $2.5 million ad campaign Thursday to boost student interest in math, science and technology.

The ad campaign will be paid for by private businesses and will include a series of TV commercials and billboards across the state delivering the message that Utah businesses need more tech and math-savvy workers to fill today’s jobs. It’s part of a larger effort, Herbert says, to equip the state’s future workers with the skills needed to compete in a high-tech world.

“We need more scientists. We need more technicians. We need more engineers,” the governor told about 100 fifth- and sixth-graders in a school gymnasium at science-focused public school Neil Armstrong Academy.

As part of his State of the State address Wednesday evening, the governor also asked legislators to set aside $4.5 million in state funds for science, technology and math programs for Utah students. Last year, the legislature poured $10 million toward school tech initiatives, in part to fund a center tasked with developing new math lessons.


Herbert says equipping students with digital classrooms and better science lessons are key tools in reaching the state’s goal of two-thirds of Utah residents earning some kind of secondary degree by 2020.That goal includes a broad range of certificates, from mechanic’s licenses to advanced engineering degrees.

The initiative echoes cries from the software and medical industries, whose leaders say they will soon need more workers with at least a basic understanding of computer science and a strong background in mathematics and logic. But too much focus on computer-related fields, critics say, could deprive students reading and writing skills and could neglect school issues that may soon need urgent care.

Nationally, Utah ranks in the middle of the pack for its number of science, technology and math initiatives, according to a 2013 report from the Georgia Tech Research Institute. By 2018, Utah will have about 100,000 jobs in those fields, estimates a separate report from the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America.

Part of the push to improve math and science performance includes trying to get students more digital tablets. Currently, most schools have just a few to pass around, said Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson, who chairs the committee tasked with divvying up state dollars for public schools.

A group of over a dozen businesses in Utah are footing the bill for the ad campaign.

It isn’t the first time that private businesses have chipped in. Last year, some Utah schools split the bill with the legislature for a school-tech outfitter to swap blackboards for glowing smart screens and provide iPads to each student, among other updates.

Herbert pointed to 17-year-old Robert Nay as a role model for young students. Three years ago, a friend’s father knew Robert liked physics and suggested the teenager create a puzzle game for iPhones. For about a month and a half, Robert spent free afternoons and a chunk of winter break writing and refining code for “Bubble Ball.”

A week and a half later, the game took the top slot among free apps in Apple’s iTunes store, logging 16 million downloads. Robert is a member of the robotics team at Utah’s Maple Mountain High and said he has made “some money, not millions,” from add-on levels for purchase in the iTunes store.

More emphasis on new ways to teach math and science to youngsters could prevent more students from dropping out of high school down the road, said Deon Turley, the education commissioner for the Utah Parent Teacher Association.

“If they struggle with math and science in their early years, they think, ‘I’m never gonna catch up. Why do this? I’m not going to graduate.’ And they drop out of school,” she said.

Democrat Sen. Patricia Jones praised the governor for prioritizing education, but she urged caution with focusing too much on technology. Jones said other issues are mounting, including recruiting more teachers, funding the arts and hiring more school counselors to monitor students’ mental health. Other students, she noted, want to pursue studies outside the tech realm.

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