Thursday, October 17, 2013

Career Technical Schools and Computer Science

Over the years I have gotten involved with a number of career technical schools in New England. Several in New Hampshire where I live and several in Massachusetts which is near by. This is fall advisory meeting season so I have attended several so far. Career technical programs are required to have advisory committees made up of people from industry and education to make sure the programs are current, meet student needs and generally prepare students for careers. that career piece is what makes programs in computing different in career technical schools from  more traditional “academic” high schools.

While most people think of career technical schools in terms of careers like auto shop, welding, agriculture, cosmetology and similar trades more and more of these school are adding more hi tech programs. Biotechnology and pre-engineering for example. And computing. Computing programs tend to be called “Programming and web development” rather than computer science. It’s the whole “learn a trade” thing I suspect. Ultimately though students in these programs learn a lot of computer science.

These programs do well with students who don’t always do well in traditional schools. The environment is different. It is more hands on and project based for one thing. It has a clear short term goal. Even the vocabulary is different. Students don’t work in a computer lab but work in a “shop.” The teachers generally have some experience in industry and that colors the way they teach and the way they design curriculum.

The programs I am advising generally have three year programs. Three full year programs. One doesn’t see that very often in traditional high schools. Students also generally learn multiple programming languages. Graduating with productive knowledge of three or four languages is common. The schools also work hard at finding the students co-op opportunities which place them in real world working environments which is itself a powerful learning experience. BTW if you are interested in hiring interns or other student workers in computing you should really look into a near by career technical school if there is one!

Of course many of these “programming and web development” students will go on to college. Many of them to community colleges in part because of academic records but often also because of money issues. There they will show up very much advanced over their peers from “college prep” high schools at least in computing. Not a bad thing.

These schools generally keep very current. They seldom teach the AP CS curriculum, finding it too limiting, but jump easily into things like cloud computing, mobile app development, and the latest in languages and operating systems. I haven’t visited a career tech program yet where the “shop” wasn’t running at least Windows 7. One I visited recently had a new shop where all of the computers ran with dual monitors which is a lot more like industry uses.

And the students! Highly motivated, hard working, and eager to learn. They are there because they want to be there. These are kids who would often be trying to learn on their own if these programs were not available to them. having the support of a teacher, curriculum and other resources no doubt moves them much faster, deeper and broader than they could learn on their own.

These schools are an under appreciated resource when we talk about computing education. They don’t show up on the APCS numbers which makes them almost invisible in some ways. The teachers are interested in learning new things but an AP CS prep course is not in that category so AP teachers may not run into them often. And yet they are preparing students that the AP CS students will be competing with for jobs. Given a choice between a student with a passing APCS score and a year long internship who do you think some hiring managers will look at first? I’ve talked to students co-oping at companies like IBM and Lincoln labs BTW. So these co-ops are not all with small operations.

Yes, I’m a fan. At a time when to many college prep high schools seem to be deemphasizing computing these career tech high schools are growing their “programming and web development” programs. They’re doing some good stuff!


Jim Peters said...

How are the supporting curriculum text books and theory? I found the model I was expected to use for theory quite limiting and more oriented to college reading levels.

Alfred C Thompson II said...

People are all over the map. Lots of different books and a lot more ebooks these days.

Craig Statucki said...

I'm a little biased because I have worked at a career and technical academy for the last 4+ years, but the academy model needs to be duplicated more frequently. They have great graduation rates and prepare students to be college and career ready.

If you are ever in Las Vegas, I'd be glad to give you a tour of our facility and arrange visits at the other academies in town.

Jim Peters said...

Not sure I've ever told you that your working through your book on Visual Basic (and chapter 15 in the O'Reilly) book were directly responsible for me getting my PWD license. So I know you got it right.

Alfred C Thompson II said...

Mr. Statucki I may take you up on that some day. Las Vegas/Clark County is one of the more interesting parts of the country and I do get out there from time to time. Most recently last August. Yeah, peak tourism season - NOT. :-)

Craig Statucki said...

August is usually not the best month to visit Las Vegas. It is either super hot or it is monsoon season and it is super hot and humid.

Alfred C Thompson II said...

I know. I was in Las Vegas for work and the hotel rates were nice and low though. Stayed in one of the few large hotels without a casino too.