A first-of-its-kind program in Texas – and possibly the country – has begun at tech-career-focused high school CAST Tech in the San Antonio Independent School District.
Students at the downtown school founded in 2017 began on Monday a user-experience, or UX, career pathway that entails three years of coursework learning the design discipline that has sprung out of the advent of the internet and computer applications.
“This is revolutionary,” said Laura Faulkner, a Ph.D. practitioner in the field who helped write the new course. “[It is] a high school program that hasn’t existed.”
Last fall, CAST Tech submitted the proposed curriculum to the Texas Education Agency, which regulates public education in the state, and received formal approval in May. It’s now the third pathway, including business and technology, that CAST Tech students can opt into as they build toward a digital career.
CAST Tech is one of three current CAST schools in San Antonio. CAST stands for Centers for Applied Science and Technology. The second CAST high school, CAST STEM, opened last fall, and CAST Med, for aspiring medical doctors and health sciences researchers, opened this week.
Principal Melissa Alcala said the school created the UX program as a response to trends they were observing in the industry.
“We’ve been tasked with being responsive to industry demands in San Antonio,” Alcala said. “We’re creating a pipeline of future employees the city needs.”
But industry leaders did not drive the school toward building a UX program. It came about after CAST Tech students discovered during a digital media class that UX designers made significantly higher salaries than traditional graphic designers.
The average salary for a user experience designer is $86,000 a year, according to job search engine Indeed, which pulls from employee surveys and job postings both past and current. Graphic designers, according to the site, earn an average annual salary of $36,000, and graphic design jobs are projected to grow at a much slower pace in the next several years than the average career, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When a student asked what a user experience designer does, Digital Media Arts teacher Belinda Medellin said she’d never heard of it and would do some research on it. That’s when she realized how in-demand the profession was in the tech industry. Medellin asked Alcala for permission to assemble a group of industry leaders that would explore creating the course.
“It’s powerful because the kids had a voice in it,” Alcala said.
Medellin said she was prepared to leave teaching before landing at CAST Tech, which she said has given her the tools to empower her students with practical skills they’ll take with them after earning their diploma.
“I really want to help kids be marketable and put San Antonio on the map, because there’s a lot of talented people here and they don’t always have to go to Dallas or Austin” for jobs, she said.
Faulkner, who defines the UX field as applying “human science to make technology easier for real people to use,” said she has been working in this area in some capacity for more than two decades. UX professionals act as the conduit through which users communicate their needs and desires to the engineers who build the software products and other technology they use.
It’s a nascent area of study that many universities are just beginning to develop degree programs around. The University of Texas at Austin has a master’s program focusing on UX at its School of Information, but very few programs exist at the undergraduate level.
While she would prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree to their name, Faulkner said she would consider hiring students straight out of high school with the rigor and preparation of the UX career pathway at CAST Tech.
“It’s hard to find people with the right preparation because the preparation hasn’t existed yet,” she said. “We are creating the future of our own workforce.”
Junior Kahlil Davis, 16, said he’s already earned freelance gigs using web design and UX skills he developed in class. He finds the principles of the discipline informing nearly all of his projects. For example, when he and his classmates were planning a festival at the school, he used what he had learned to improve crowd management.
His passion for psychology, a class he’ll take next year, will take his UX skills even further, he said.
“I want to take that class and learn how users think more, so that I can better understand how everything works around us,” Kahlil said. “How I can implement psychology into my work, that’s what I’m really excited for.”