Missoula tech firm: White House computer science grant to fund 21st century education

A push by the White House to pour $200 million a year into programs that encourage computer science education has won the praise of a Missoula-based nonprofit, which believes the investment could go far in helping Montana build a competitive workforce.

Last week, President Trump signed an agreement launching the initiative, which pledges $1 billion over the next five years. Five of the nation’s leading tech firms have also joined the cause, pledging an additional $300 million over the same timeframe.

“We don’t have huge details yet as to how those grants will become available to the state level, the district level and to local nonprofits,” said Devin Homes, founder and CEO of the America Campaign, based in Missoula. “But this is a commitment to focus on increasing computer science education in our schools, and increasing diversity in computer science among women and underrepresented minorities.”

Ivanka Trump, who spearheaded the national effort, has championed tech-based education since joining her father’s administration with a focus on girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering and math fields, in which women are often underrepresented.

Holmes, whose America Campaign nonprofit includes the Big Sky Code Academy, Montana Code Girls and Teachers Teaching Tech, among other efforts, said less than 1 percent of STEM funding goes to computer science education, even though it’s a skill the next generation needs.

“It’s a 21st century skill and it’s one that’s going to be needed in nearly every sector we train talent for,” said Holmes. “In Montana, if we think about building a 21st century economy, then this should be part of our K-12 system and should be part of the required curriculum students go through. Economically, that’s where the future of the jobs are.”

In its memo released last week, the White House said the $200 million annual effort won’t change the overall Department of Education budget, but rather will prioritize the existing budget with a focus on teaching computer science.

Holmes said his tech program looks to train 750 K-12 teachers in Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming by the end of next summer to teach computer science in the classroom. It’s also working to apply for grants pledged by Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Salesforce and Amazon.

“We know there’s a conversation and an undercurrent in the conversation around how to make sure these funds flow to rural communities and not just the urban metros,” Holmes said. “I think we’re well positioned to be a leader in bringing some of these funds into our rural communities.”

According to the White House, computing jobs are the best-paying, fastest-growing and largest source of all new wages in the U.S. But while they account for 70 percent of all new jobs in STEM fields, they represent just 1 percent of STEM funding in grades K-12.

As a result, most schools don’t teach computer science and only 8 percent of university STEM graduates learn it. Women and minorities are also underrepresented, placing them at a disadvantage when competing for high-paying jobs in the tech sector.

In Montana, that’s especially true of Native Americans, Holmes said.

The America Campaign is also looking to drum up pledges for large-scale businesses across the four-state region served by the nonprofit. Nationally, the five tech-giants Google, Amazon, Facebook, Salesforce and Microsoft have each pledged $50 million to the effort.

“This is a great opportunity for us to engage the corporations in our community, large and small, and ask them to join in on this pledge to make this a priority in Montana schools,” Holmes said. “It’s going to be part of our focus, to encourage them to join in and make their own commitment.”