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For the second year in a row, my computer programming room had been commandeered for SBAC testing purposes for two weeks. For most classes, this wouldn’t be an issue, but when it’s a computer programming class being removed from the computer lab, and placed in a regular classroom…well it’s hard to teach students to program computers without computers. Teaching isn’t about finding ways to be inflexible, however, it’s about finding opportunities to grow and then executing. So for the second year in a row, I reached out to people in my network to see if they would volunteer some of their time to speak to our students about what it takes to be successful in the technology industry, how their stories shaped their companies and who they are, and to impart any pearls of wisdom to future startup owners. What we got was 2-3 weeks packed with unforgettable learning experiences for students aged 13-50. Here, in no particular order, are some reflections on what has been a great few weeks.
Exceptional Question Quality
Our first speaker, Liz Wessel of CampusJob, pointed out during her session that the students asked extremely good questions, better than many investors she has spoken to about the nationwide student employment service in the past. I didn’t realize how true this was until I found myself remarking on this fact during every presentation’s Q+A session. There are few things that catch me off guard like the inquisitiveness of student minds when given a chance to explore, but even with half a decade of teaching experience I am always astounded at some of the things students generate out of thought. Without being coached to, students asked the key questions about the generation of revenue models, refinement of product ideas, and the first moments of a launch. But then there were the deeply personal questions, such as ‘what were you most afraid of when starting your company/now?’, ‘if you could go back and experience the same thing with your company, would you?’, and ‘what was the biggest mistake you’ve made during your company’s lifespan and how did you learn from it?’. Most of the speakers were astonished at these questions when they were asked, but it is rare that a student gets to fire away like this at a real life and successful human being. I’m sure they’ll never forget it.
Something that both the students and myself reflected on was the sheer variety of people and products on display for a technology expo. While the presentations were all rooted in people at the helm of successful tech products, we had artists, filmmakers, designers, coders, CEOs, men and women between 23 and 50; there was every opportunity for every student to make a connection to at least one of these individuals. If students couldn’t relate to the individuals, the presentations covered products from innovative storytelling apps to job searching platforms. There were also presentations in varying styles from informal Skype session to rehearsed first-person narrative. There was something for everyone at this Expo, and seeing a different student each day make a connection to these people or these products makes the effort to put it together worth every second.
One moment I’ll never forget as a teacher was the presentation given by Ben Langley and Justin Fagella, graduating Seniors at GHS from our computer science program. These two built theassassingame.com, a platform to play the popular school spirit game, Assassin. It was the first major project they had built, and it was a huge success. They deployed it to their senior class to around 60,000 pageviews per month, and plan on expanding the platform to multiple schools over the summer. Aside from their success, the part of this I enjoyed the most was seeing the expertise and the ease with which they discussed their architecture, programming languages, and the learning experiences they gained during the course of the deployment of the game. It’s one thing to master one’s own work, it’s another to look right at home discussing it with the other role models we brought in during the expo.
Vindication or Confirmation?
The last thing I thought was particularly interesting about the Expo was the advice that every presenter gave to the programming students. Perhaps my most difficult job in starting our rich program here has been to convince people that we are successful because our approach is different. From the very first character I wrote on a syllabus, we’ve always been trying to teach students how to do one thing: “build stuff”. As I touched on in a post a few weeks ago, #StartYourOwn is a major reason why we’ve had tremendous success building this program from 30 to 130 students in just 2 years. This is strange to most because it’s scary to give students such freedom of choice and responsibility of action, but it’s vital to their engagement and their success. Just ask Angela Maiers of Choose2Matter; her main message is that students have a genius that they are responsible for contributing to the world.
So, it was to my gleeful delight when the main piece of advice given to the students by almost every presenter was just that; “build stuff”. Students were told to start now because nobody is going to say no to helping them and talking to them, because it’s important to fail early and often, or simply because if they never start building their idea, they’ll never finish. I thought it was a crystal clear validation of this credo that we’ve embedded into the students at GHS Comp Sci, and I hope they recognized it as well.
If you’re interested in seeing some of the speakers’ sessions, I’ve posted the videos on our GHS Comp Sci Youtube Channel. Feel free to use these with your classes or for your own personal viewing pleasure. The bit of advice I tell my students that was imparted to me by my partner, John Raffaeli, was that successful people are still just people, and what I love most about these sessions is that we got to see the human sides of many players in the technology space. This is an important facet that Steve Jobs was poignantly aware of: don’t lose sight of the humanity in technology, because without it the tech is just circuitry and lights.