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Utah Leaders Call for Data Science + AI Education Statewide

Industry, education, policy leaders convene to ensure education meets the future of work

Not often do leaders from across so many sectors come together for a shared, singular goal.

On September 12th, representatives from Utah industry, higher education, policy, K-12 education, and nonprofits came together alongside teachers, parents, and even students in American Fork, UT to discuss future priorities for K-12 data science education.

Organized through a collaboration between the Utah-based organizations Women Tech Council and Utah Tech Leads and our team at Data Science 4 Everyone, and generously hosted by Utah technology company Domo, the summit brought together leaders and practitioners from around the state, with the goal to ensure K-12 is aligning itself to the future of work.

Hosted at Domo’s new headquarters in American Fork, UT, “Scaling Data Science in Utah” brought together nearly 100 industry, policy, K-12 and higher-education leaders to discuss the future of data science, math, CS, and technology education.

Utah has been leading the country in both workforce training and academic achievement by a number of measures. The fast-growing “Silicon Slopes” technology sector has been drawing jobs and economic development locally for years, spearheaded through a number of entrepreneurial support initiatives like Talent Ready and The Point. The state’s new Profile of a Graduate highlights several 21st-century durable skills that are critical for the modern workforce. In math education, Utah was the only state nationally not to observe significant achievement declines from pandemic-related disruptions between 2019 and 2022. As a community, Utah is deciding not to stop there, but to push further.

“We can’t sit back and stop. Our state is doing amazing things, our school board is doing amazing things, our staff is doing amazing things. Yet if we don’t get out in front of data science now, we’re going to miss it. Data science is everywhere. Every industry is looking at data science and AI, and if we don’t embrace it, we won’t be able to compete.” — Representative Jefferson Moss (R-51).

Utah state leaders convened to ensure the state remains ahead on the digital frontier and the future of work with data science education.

Several representatives from Utah industry emphasized that data science will be critical for the future of work, and that it goes far beyond the technology sector:

“I am not a data scientist, I am a marketer. I need data literacy. In order to do any job well today, you need to be able to work with data. You need data literacy no matter what industry you are in.” — Wendy Steinle (CMO, Domo).
“Data is the very first thing we go with, every time… When we acquire a company, we put a data dashboard on their operations, with a common language we can all agree to… We manage risks, make tradeoffs, and solve hard problems.” — Cyndi Tetro (CEO, Brandless)
“Technology is changing so quickly, and I have never seen this in my career — all these tools that were once theoretical are now coming to fruition. The volume is so much that if you can’t communicate the vast amount of data to be consumable by decision-makers, there is no impact.” — Joanna Fankhauser (SVP, Instructure)
“We’re going to see more and more data professionals, but those who don’t have a data background will struggle in any role in business. It really stands out if you’re not sure what to do with data. A really important conversation in education is how everyone can get a bit of exposure, to ensure their future career success” — Amy Heinrich (VP of Data, Pluralsight)

Left to right: Mark Maughan (Chief Analytics Officer, Domo), Anna Bell (University of Utah), Amy Heinrich (VP of Data, Pluralsight), and Joanna Fankhauser (SVP, Instructure) speak from industry and academia on the need for data education in K-12.

This translated to a clear call to action for education:

“All educators should help their students in problem-solving and explaining [data]. I also think students need to know which variables to create, which models to select, and practice the creativity of how to solve novel problems — to create new insights with data” — Amy Heinrich (VP of Data, Pluralsight)
“Ethics will be critical… especially with access to ChatGPT, people who can help shape policy, but also serve as consultants to governments and business, will represent a really big change over the next 10 years.” — Anna Bell (University of Utah)
“We want to build the skills in our students, so they can build the workforce of the future themselves.” — Wendy Steinle (CMO, Domo).

In a world of changing tools, the conversation also centered on the deep interconnection between AI, computer science, and data — and how to make these many fast-changing disciplines feasible for K-12 schools and districts to take on. What will change, and what will grow or remain more permanently?

Mark Maughan (Chief Analytics Officer, Domo), who moderated an industry panel, shared that “a lot of organizations are trying to build AI into their products… In the recent conversations with ChatGPT, there is deep connective tissue between data and AI — obviously AI is driven by data, and is the foundational piece of it… Without that data, we won’t get anywhere.” Joanna Fankhauser specifically noted that “people get fearful when they tie their career to a particular tool or technology (e.g. Python, SQL, etc.), especially if something is automated. But if you say, ‘I am going to use data to solve problems,’ there are so many different avenues you can leverage. There will always be that opportunity.”

A number of speakers and attendees share their personal experiences with data — and how formal education opportunities would have been transformational if they began earlier. Anna Bell, a graduate student in Data Science at the University of Utah, shared that “if I were in high school now, any of my prior interests could have been important in some type of data science project… I would have been more interested in math and science. I had a lot of interests, but they weren’t relevant in anything in the standard classroom subjects,” emphasizing that earlier exposure could help students understand their interests and make better career choices. Patty Norman, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Utah State Board of Education, shared that, “I was a great follower… a quiet student who could memorize well, and who loved the stability of Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. Those types of students were rewarded with Straight As. We’re in a world today where students need to think for themselves, and think about the information they encounter.”

Former Utah graduates — including a data scientist at NASA and a mathematics instructor at Harvard — shared what they see as emerging in this field, including projects from detecting exoplanets beyond our solar system to making air-traffic control and U.S. airspace safer for passengers:

“Data science wasn’t even on my radar in college, much less high school… yet whether you plan on having a career in DS, or a career in something else, it’s important to know about — how models are trained, how much data goes into the models, and the ethics around it all.” — Daniel Weckler (Associate Data Scientist, KBR, NASA AMES Research Center)
“I think we need to get more rigorous in our mathematics thinking. Rigor is about better understanding their world — few students see the math class as rigorous in that way… our current curriculum fails to give them the tools they need to engage with problems that matter.” — Brendan Kelly (Director of Introductory Mathematics, Harvard University)

Brendan Kelly, Director of Introductory Mathematics at Harvard University, spoke on the need to re-align definitions of mathematical rigor to the 21st century.

Utah schools and districts have already begun early efforts to bring these opportunities to students statewide, building upon earlier work to create computer science education at-scale. They focus on infusing data science and AI into existing school subjects, like mathematics.

For the 2023–2024 school year, the State Board of Education launched an opt-in pilot program for K-12 data science high school courses — meant to serve as an additional 3rd or 4th year mathematics option and a bridge to college. 18 schools are participating in the inaugural cohort.

Lindsey Henderson, Secondary Mathematics Specialist for the Utah State Board of Education, moderated a discussion with the school leaders, teachers, and students who began these programs this year. They collectively shared what they hope their classes will learn, and why they chose to invest the time and energy to learn data science:

What do you hope students will learn?

“I hope they get to experience a little bit of what those in the industry experience each day. I also hope they become more data-wise — there is so much data thrown at them through social media and the news. I want them to be more careful consumers of the information and data they see.” — Ashley Salisbury (Davis School District)
“I think data literacy is critical. I teach in a Title I school, and many students don’t see math in their real world. I think Data Science can provide a door for them to use math” — Tyler Haslam (Granite School District)
“We want students to be literate — part of being literate today is being data literate. Big data surrounds us, and data about us personally is online. By engaging in Data Science courses, students will walk away much better prepared to understand and engage in the world around them.” — Nicole Berg (Nebo School District)

Were students or teachers intimidated by the “C-word” (coding)?

“I told fellow teachers and students that they’ll be ok. It’s much like using your calculator, just a lot more powerful, and lets you do even more mathematics.” — Tyler Hassam (Granite School District)
“Only one of our teachers had prior coding experience. Everyone is jumping in and is excited about it.” — Nicole Berg (Nebo School District)
“We have a broad range of students engaging in our data science courses. We have students enrolled who took Calculus, and we have those who are working with an IEP (Instructional Education Plan)… these courses create a level playing-field in the math education space where every student can engage and learn.” — Nicole Berg (Nebo School District)

Left to right: Lindsey Henderson (Secondary Mathematics Specialist for the Utah State Board of Education), Ashley Salisbury (Davis School District), Tyler Hassam (Granite School District), and Nicole Berg (Nebo School District).

Each of these educators chose a different curriculum to follow — one of the many listed online at the DS4E Resource Center — but all focused on imparting a technology tool in synthesis with mathematics and statistics that translates to a real-world application.

Are students enjoying your programs?

“I had a prior coding background, and I know data science is clearly the future… I want to be a part of that and begin learning it now.” — a high school student panelist.
“I am a first generation college student and the first to go in my family. I enrolled in the course to earn a required math credit, but it’s been unlike any other math course I have taken… it is actually fun.” — a high school student panelist.
“Data science isn’t hard or easy… it’s a way to challenge yourself and grow” — a high school student panelist.
“I like NOT getting the question of, “when am I going to use this?” — Ashley Salisbury (Davis School District)

The early efforts are paying off. Superintendent Syndee Dickson of the Utah State Board of Education shared that over one fourth of school districts in Utah now have a teacher prepared to teach data science this school year.

Deputy Superintendent (left) and Superintendent Syndee Dickson (right) of Public Instruction for the Utah State Board of Education share updates on the K-12 Data Science state pilot program.

Yet much work and investment is needed to grow from pilot to scale. One policy leader noted that computer science “has only begun reaching the furthest corners of the state. Eight years ago, industry came together and said we don’t have the people to fill jobs, or enough people with the skills, and we’re willing to put up the funding to match what the state does. We need to keep building these programs, not just in college, but in the earlier years. We need to take it much further than that.”

“I think data science education is at the very beginning, and it’s exciting we get to build this now — we get to unlock students’ talents and use them in ways they might not have thought possible,” Cyndi Tetro, CEO of Brandless and Founder of the Women Tech Council, concluded. “Data science is the next wave that unlocks so much critical thinking and interconnection to all of the emerging technologies: cybersecurity, UX, AI, etc.”

For the next wave to empower every student, it will take concerted effort, investment, and collaboration to ensure anyone can graduate data literate, and be ready for the modern workforce. With continued coordination, Utah has an opportunity to lead the country in furthering the digital frontier, and to serve as a model nationally.

Teachers participating in the Utah SBOE’s Data Science pilot were recognized at a statewide education summit in American Fork, UT.


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