November 2010

Volume 25 Number 11

Editor’s Note - Proactive Education

By Keith Ward | November 2010

Keith WardTalk about striking a nerve: I’ve gotten more feedback on my columns about how well colleges are preparing students for a career in IT than I’ve ever gotten on any topic, at any magazine. I’m encouraged that so many people are interested in the next generation of developers and IT pros.

What I’m even more encouraged about is that some folks out there are doing something about it. Among the deluge of e-mails I received was one from Steven Pencle, an applications manager with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), District 4. Pencle told me about a program he and some others started to mentor high school students interested in the IT field, and help nurture that interest into productive careers. It’s a story worth sharing.

The program actually got started about five years ago, when the agency hired students from the nearby high school to work on some summer projects as paid interns. These were students in a special school program called the Academy of Information Technology, which partnered with local businesses to mentor students and provide internships. Although the program was successful, the budget eventually evaporated.

Not willing to give up, Pencle and some coworkers took matters into their own hands in 2009 and formed the Information Technology Mentoring Team for local high schools. The Team, currently comprised of four technologists and two human resources specialists, gives presentations and tutoring for interested students. And they are interested, Pencle says. “The enthusiasm from the students and the teachers makes us want to continue. They (the teachers) want us back.”

The focus of the Mentoring Team is on practical application of IT concepts, not sterile classroom lectures. For example, Workstation Support Supervisor Radame Gutierrez presented the students with a real challenge. “I disabled a PC with bad memory, [broken] clock, stuff like that, and had them come up and see if they could spot the issues and rebuild the machine,” he says.

That kind of hands-on is what sparks students’ interest, says Network Security Coordinator Hank Sanchez. During one session, he remembers, “Students were so interested that my presentation took on a life of its own ... they were very involved, and asked great questions. I met one-on-one with them after.”

That enthusiasm is often carrying over into college and beyond. Many of the students they worked with, from the past interns to the more recent high school students, are now studying computer science and engineering at colleges and universities such as nearby Florida Atlantic University, or working productively in the field.

One of them, in fact, is now working for FDOT, where she once interned. Melissa Fuentes, senior clerk at the Broward Operations Center, developed her love of IT partially through her paid internship in 2007. She enjoyed it enough that she would’ve done it for free. “For me, I honestly would go without being paid,” she says. “They let me do my own coding; I did Visual Basic and Visual C#. It was great.”

The Mentoring Team goes beyond just the technical aspects of work. The HR members advise students on the process of getting hired. This includes advice on how to fill out applications, write resumes and develop interviewing skills.

In his initial e-mail to me, Pencle laid out a vision for the future: “One of my dreams is to see high school IT students and their technology teachers attend a four-day conference similar to Microsoft Tech·Ed where they attend breakout sessions,  participate in labs, meet IT mentors and preview upcoming technologies.  Like thousands of Tech·Ed attendees, such an experience will forever change their lives and possibly the technology landscape of our nation.”

With folks like him and the Mentoring Team working on it, that change is truly possible.