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Bridging the technology skills gap
Schools are attempting to fill the void of technology-based education by connecting students to companies that provide mentoring and internships
February 28, 2013
Careers that require science, technology, engineering, and math have employers increasingly concerned that these jobs are growing at a faster rate than potential applicants can fill them.
Only 4 percent of the more than 4 million freshmen who entered high school in 2001 graduated 10 years later with a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) degree. This fact was recently brought to light by the Business Education Compact, a non-profit company that connects the classroom and workplace with hands-on, innovative learning experiences for students and teachers. STEM jobs are growing at approximately twice the rate of non-STEM jobs, with a 17 percent increase projected from 2008 to 2018.
This is no mystery or epiphany in the education arena, however, and as the void widens, STEM education has become a subject of focus in K-12 education. Ironically, the hands-on programs that combine these skills were some of the programs that took the biggest hits in Oregon education during the recession. The good news is that there is a renewed awareness and concerted effort to bring these core subjects to life.
One way that many districts are filling the void in technology skills is to connect students with businesses and companies that can provide mentorships and internships. Many districts cannot offer the hands-on classes in subjects such as computer networking, programming, and engineering, but they can help form partnerships with companies that use these skills. Crook County High School took advantage of such an offer by none other than Facebook’s Prineville Data Center, and two lucky students, Nathaniel Stevenson and Shad Bennight, spent last summer learning skills in server maintenance.
“At Facebook, we used a lot of STEM education,” said Stevenson. “When we worked on servers, we had to count different pieces and make sure that we had the right amount, and had to keep track and have organizational skills. We also had to know a little about how the process works and how the server would be running,” he added.
Stevenson noted that they had to use math in the programs that they were exposed to, learning about different codes used in communicating and trouble-shooting with the servers. He also indicated that they had to learn about the evaporative cooling system’s air flow, and the relationship to server placement, which was just some of the engineering training they were given.
“I wish we had a computer class here that would teach us not just typing, but different kinds of computer programs,” added Stevenson.
He said it would have also been helpful to have access to a class that taught applications in Apple computer operating systems and software, in addition to a traditional Microsoft Windows class. He also noted that a program that taught Linux and the parts of a computer and some basic networking and programming would be very important to students.
Stevenson will be entering the Navy immediately upon graduation. He will be going to college for a computer engineering degree.
“I was thinking about computers, but interning at Facebook really solidified and made me know that is exactly what I want to do,” he added.
He recommends that all students should do an internship and get a taste for the subject or career they are interested in.
Ristine Williams, Prineville Facebook’s Data Site Coordinator, commented that although she didn’t interact with the interns in a technical sense, she recalled that she watched the enthusiasm and excitement that was generated from the skills they learned during their time at Facebook last summer. She added that there was a lot of value in having them come in as high school juniors to their internship, and then going back to high school with the knowledge that they gained.
Williams said that when students already have the attraction to the technology industry, the exposure just speeds up the learning curve.
“Take advantage of those opportunities as you find them,” said Williams. “Take those courses and get involved with the lab, and get experience working with different technology and solving problems —whether it’s in your math class or in an internship.”
Immersion into the world of science, technology, engineering, and math can change the career path a student is taking, one that they might have otherwise not followed. Ask Derek McCallister, who graduated from CCHS in 2003, and has been working in the world of computer technology since he was 20. His exposure to computers in middle school and high school shaped his decision to continue this career path after graduation. Looking in hindsight, he has seen the importance of math, science, and engineering in high school — especially in computer technology.
“Word processing skills are extremely important,” he added. “I haven’t been in a technical job that hasn’t used Microsoft Office in some manner.”
McCallister said that many times, the assumption is that students will just learn this at home, because a home computer will probably have it.
“But that is not necessarily true, because I grew up in a generation where this stuff was just being launched, so we slowly got introduced to it,” he said. “As things changed with time, it was easy for us to recognize the differences and adapt to that change.”
He added that students currently in K-12 are exposed to a large amount of technology —but they still need to be guided through the changes of information technology. He said that one of the important things that should be infused into high school technology curriculum is Microsoft Office and Linux, a computer operating system assembled under the model of free and open source software development and distribution. It is used by many major industries.
He also added that proper trouble-shooting is an important skill.
“I think the best thing I ever learned (for technology) in high school was in CISCO class,” noted McCallister. “That was trouble-shooting with the OSI model.”
He explained that this is the seven-layer layout of a computer network.
“It teaches you to trouble-shoot from the ground up. I thought this was extremely valuable, and understanding how to do that in the technology industry.”
His biggest piece of advice for students in this field is to match up what they enjoy with what they are good at.
Communications Manager for Engineering and Infrastructure for Facebook’s Prineville Data Center Michael Kirkland made a point that despite the fact that students have no control over the classes offered at their school district, they should focus on core classes that all schools do offer. Science and math are important components in engineering.
“We can see how technology is shaping our lives and shaping our world,” said Kirkland.
He said that there is an increasing demand for individuals with a strong background in science, technology, engineering and math, which will help build up the next wave of technology that will change the world and make our lives better.
Kirkland added that there is also a strong imbalance between the amount of men and women in the industry.
“We have seen in other industry like medicine and law, that it has started to balance out to be more 50/50 between men and women,” he noted.
He went on to say that in the technology/engineering field, there is still a discrepancy, and the industry is missing out on a lot of talents.
The kind of engineering behind places like Facebook, according to Kirkland, is less about mathematics, and more about the ability to creatively solve problems. Students, however, can foster these skills by taking science and mathematics courses.
“In the sort of exercises that they go through in science and mathematics courses, they are building up the kinds of creativity and problem-solving mindset that can really valuable to you if you do pursue a career in engineering.”
Joshua Crass, Prineville Facebook’s Data Center Manager, explained that when they brought in Bennight and Stevenson to work as interns at the data center, the students did not have any formal experience and they had to learn what they needed on the job. They learned skills in Linux, networking, and computer hardware.
“They left here with a lot of those skills,” said Crass.
He added that some of the most important requirements for a server technician entry level position includes the aptitude to learn and the willingness to want to learn. He added that Facebook will employ two CCHS interns again this coming summer, and the district has begun working with Facebook on their selections.
Crass has the experience of knowing several programming languages, and has worked on numerous kinds of hardware. His experience opened the door for him to work for Google, eventually working as a data center manager. Two years ago, he came to work for Facebook, and recently became the Data Center Manager for Facebook.
“I have done a lot of things that made me who I am today,” Crass said of his work experience.