The Hope and Opportunity of a Technology Education
Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson bet big on computer science—and students, teachers, and communities across his state are benefiting
School curriculum doesn’t sound like an exciting subject for a political campaign, but Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson made headlines in 2014 for a campaign ad that featured his young granddaughter Ella Beth. She plays basketball, practices for the swim team—and builds her own mobile app. “She also taught herself basic computer programming,” Hutchinson says in the ad, over images of 11-year-old Ella Beth clicking and dragging design tools across a screen. “She’s my inspiration for putting computer science, particularly coding, in every Arkansas high school.”
Seven years later, that vision has largely become reality through the Arkansas Computer Science Initiative, one of the country’s most ambitious efforts to make computer science a standard part of the school experience for all students. “Some people rolled their eyes at that ad, but it worked!” Hutchinson tells The Elective. “People understood why this was important for our students and responded to it. This is really going to be a legacy issue for me.”
With strong support from state lawmakers and the business community, Arkansas made computer science a graduation requirement and expanded course offerings to include a range of different specialties. Hutchinson appointed Anthony Owen as statewide Director of Computer Science to oversee the work, and Arkansas officials now consult regularly with their colleagues across the country on how to bring more computer education into the classroom.
Now in his second term as governor and having been elected chairman of the National Governors Association on July 8, Hutchinson explains why he made computer science one of his signature issues, what he hopes it will mean for the long-term future of his home state, and how he plans to incorporate CS education into his time leading the NGA.
When people talk about the tech industry, they tend to mean Silicon Valley or New York, or maybe Seattle and Austin. How do you get people to include Arkansas in that view and see it as a potential tech hub?
When we first started the Computer Science Initiative, I traveled to Silicon Valley and talked to a lot of executives. They were excited and supportive, and I had it in my mind that maybe they’d locate some of their tech facilities in Arkansas. But I realized what they really wanted was my talent from Arkansas to move out to Silicon Valley, and I thought, “That’s not what I want!”
So we started to recruit more companies and create an environment for people to build new ventures here. That comes in part from understanding that just about all companies today are technology companies. When you look at the international home of Walmart, right here in Arkansas, they’re competing with Amazon. Walmart is a technology company.
When you’re talking about transportation logistics, retail logistics, you’re talking about a technology company. They need this skilled tech workforce or we could lose them, and that’s true of all kinds of companies that you wouldn’t immediately think of as “tech” companies. They can see this is a long-term investment in our state, and this is a good place to locate.
Eventually, we’ll see our graduates creating their own entrepreneurial experience. And who knows—the next tech startup that explodes to be a global enterprise could start in Arkansas. That could happen right here.
Arkansas is a very rural state overall. How do you see computer science education benefiting students from, or changing the trajectory of, smaller towns and school districts?
When people have coding skills and computer science skills, and they have access to high-speed broadband, you can run the world from your front porch in your small town. Our citizens in Arkansas can work for any company in America, or around the world. That’s going to give greater opportunities to our rural areas. I grew up in a community like that, and all across America we’re seeing those communities struggle. People want to live in that rural environment, but they need to have jobs. I hope it will have the impact of strengthening our small rural communities.
In this photo from February 24, 2015, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signs legislation requiring Arkansas public high school include computer science courses.
But this isn’t just about opportunities for Arkansas or more jobs in rural places. The tech industry everywhere will be more successful and impactful if it is represented by the true diversity of our country. Right now, tech companies are located in major cities across the country, and the talent is scarce and competitive. If we can create micro-hubs in a state like Arkansas, it’ll bring greater opportunity to our young people and to those companies.
We’re not going to have the future we want if it’s not shaped in a technology sense by those who come from small towns and those who come from urban areas and those who come from every racial and gender background imaginable. We are a diverse society. Technology has to reflect that diversity or the solutions it comes up with will not be as impactful or effective.
How are you helping a broader population of students see themselves in the technology industry? How do you change the image of who works in tech?
We want to instill in our young people the hope and opportunity that comes with a technology education. They have to visualize it in their own world and really be able to see how it can fit in their lives. We produced a video with some of our tech companies in Arkansas showing minorities and women entrepreneurs and every variety of Arkansan that has found a niche in the tech world. We want students to really see themselves in this space.
When we were starting out, I think it was hard for a lot of students to envision how this could affect their lives. But I think they see it now. It’s been transformational, how many students have engaged with this kind of learning and can now offer a vision of it for others. And that vision is important for a lot of reasons. Girls and minority students are not where they should be in terms of participation just yet. But we have seen the largest increases in participation in those groups, so it’s moving in the right direction. We hope to keep growing that through visualization and sharing what others have learned and done.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in making computer science more widely available?
The greatest obstacle is training teachers who are certified in computer science. When we started out, we had fewer than 20 certified teachers statewide. We’ve dramatically increased that, of course, and it’s inspiring to hear their stories. I met a French language teacher who told me, “Surely if you can learn a foreign language, you can learn computer language, as well.” She is such an inspiration to girls in her small, rural school. There are teachers like that all over the state who have stepped up, learned a new language, and done amazing work sharing that with students.
We also incentivize our teachers by giving them an annual stipend, some extra compensation, if they get certified and teach computer science. We put some real money behind that, which is why legislative support is so very important. Sometimes governors are tempted to go around legislatures by using their education department, by figuring out what you can get done in the executive branch. But when you put it into law, when you get full legislative support, it gives the work a much better foundation. It shows you’re committed for the long haul. And that makes it easier for teachers and superintendents to embrace it.
No matter what you do, you also have to market it. I have personally been to over 80 high schools, holding assemblies, talking about the importance of computer science. That has helped us recruit teachers and students to support this because they see how much the work is valued and celebrated.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson meets computer science students at Batesville High School in Batesville, Arkansas, during his Spring 2018 Coding Tour.
How did you get interested in computer science? What made this such a priority for you?
I’m not a technology guru by any means, but I’ve always been in positions where I understand the importance of it. After 9/11, I served in the Department of Homeland Security. My responsibility was to protect the United States from a terrorist attack, and we did that largely through technology. It’s the software that screens people coming into the United States, that analyzes cargo shipments and travel patterns. We relied on data, data analysis, risk analysis. It was technology that was so instrumental in giving us the protection that we need, balanced with the freedoms we cherish. I realized how important it was to all Americans.
I also see it on a day-to-day level. I’m a practicing lawyer, and I used to go to the library all the time and read the books and turn the pages and do hours and hours of research by hand. And now the next generation is using research tools we could only dream of, and the speed of what they can do demonstrates the effectiveness of technology in so many ways. That excites me.
What do you see as the long-term impact of your work in computer science?
One of my great legacies will be the impact of Arkansas moving up in the national standing of computer science education and the difference that’s going to make in the life of our state and in the lives of our young people. It’s something we’ve stuck with for six years, and it’s going to be a long-term change in our education structure and in the businesses that come to our state.
I’m excited to be able to showcase some of the successes we’ve had in computer science education, especially in a rural state that has historically struggled in the area of education. Later this year, I’ll have the opportunity to take over as chairman of the National Governors Association. The chairman gets to name an initiative they want to push during their year of leadership, and I want to push computer science education. I want to be able to highlight what other states are doing, have regional workshops where we inspire educators, and show what can be done. We want to be able to take this initiative and really expand it nationally.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.