Schools, organizations work to develop the future of IT talent

Posted on Jan 30, 2019 :: Cover Story
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Technology Staff Writer

Sam Schiedermayer’s daily schedule would exhaust many adults, let alone his high school peers.

The Hortonville High School senior’s activities include leading his district’s computer science advisory board, participating on the school’s successful VEX robotics team, volunteering at Hortonville Middle School, working part-time for a Greenville tech company, participating in two school bands and serving as a peer leader in two clubs.

“They recommend that you’re supposed to get eight to 10 hours of sleep as a teen; however, I really don’t do that. I get a little bit less sleep than that,” Schiedermayer says of how he fits it all in.

Computer science, robotics and outreach have become a passion for the 18-year-old standout. He became interested in technology in elementary school when a high school robotics team brought in a robot to share with his class.

The experience took. Schiedermayer got involved in robotics as a fifth-grader, participating in an area First Lego League. Today, he serves as lead for Hortonville’s robotics team, which placed third in the state the past two years and competed in the VEX Robotics World Championship three years ago.

Schiedermayer says he appreciates the role models who helped him get to where he is, and he now gives back, leading a computer science club at Hortonville Middle School. The club launched this fall with a unit on making video games. He uses the Socratic method to get the seventh- and eighth-graders to think about how they can improve and add to their game.

“I’m just kind of showing them what they can expect and what they can actually be capable of because a lot of kids don’t realize what they’re actually capable of,” he says.

Hortonville High School has become a leader in computer science education, working closely with Microsoft to develop its first TEALS class. TEALS stands for Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, and it pairs high schools with software engineers who serve as part-time computer science teachers.

For the past two years, Erin Draheim, a senior software engineer with Skyline Technologies, has served as a volunteer AP computer science teacher at Hortonville High School. For Thomas Ellenbecker, the high school’s principal, the partnership with Microsoft has been a bit surreal, though he says it did help that Microsoft President Brad Smith hails from Appleton.

“It’s almost like a perfect storm coming together where you have all the stakeholders that are here and really working toward a common cause,” Ellenbecker says of the collaboration around computer science education.

Hortonville, along with Sheboygan and Kimberly, is one of a few districts in the  New North that’s created a computer science advisory board. Initially, Ellenbecker helmed it, but Michelle Schuler, manager of Microsoft TechSpark Wisconsin, recommended a student lead it. Schiedermayer was a natural fit.

The board includes a couple of students, district administrators and teachers, business representatives from Plexus Corp., Skyline Technologies and Thrivent Financial, and Doug Waterman, dean of information technology and learning innovations at Fox Valley Technical College.

Through its work, the board added a computer science principles class to the high school’s curriculum. Schiedermayer, who plans to attend Purdue University or the University of Wisconsin-Madison next fall, says it provides a more accessible alternative to the school’s AP Computer Science course. At the other end of the spectrum, the board is looking at opportunities to provide experiences to students who have completed AP Computer Science and want to continue their learning.

Through his work, Schiedermayer breaks down misconceptions about computer science and spreads the word about the benefits it can offer. Case in point, during his internship last summer for the Greenville company Liveality, he could work from home on his laptop helping develop Android apps, including one for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

“I feel like a lot of my peers don’t really understand exactly what you can do with computer science and how accessible it is,” he says. “Also, I don’t think a lot of my peers understand how much money you can make doing it and how high-demand it is.”

Spreading that message is important, as the computer science gap continues to grow, says Kim Iversen, director of the NEW IT Alliance. The organization launched its own advisory board in September. It’s working with representatives from school districts, higher education and the business community to advance computer science education (See page  3).

“We’re trying to create a regional dialogue around computer science and technology education — identifying and closing gaps so that our students are prepared to enter the workforce,” she says.

A united front

A first-of-its-kind program in Sheboygan addresses the need for computer science talent through a partnership between the Sheboygan Area School District (SASD), Lakeshore Technical College and Lakeland University.

The College Here and Now program, which will debut next fall, allows students to earn an associate degree at their high school, along with the opportunity to complete a bachelor’s degree in two years following graduation.

Through taking dual-credit courses, SASD high school students can earn an LTC associate degree in information-technology – web and software developer. Through the partnership, students can earn the degree with no tuition cost.

They then have the option to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Lakeland, where they can choose to participate in the university’s cooperative education program and graduate in two years with little to no debt. Under the program, students work full-time for co-op partners, gathering work experience, earning wages and receiving $14,000 per year in scholarship money.

SASD Superintendent Seth Harvatine says the program helps break down barriers to receiving a degree. Since the program is free, it removes the students’ financial burden. It also addresses transportation hurdles, as the classes will be held on campus in specially branded classrooms at Sheboygan North and Sheboygan South high schools.

College Here and Now builds on the district’s current Information Technology Pathway program, which allows students to earn college credit in high school. Harvatine says all three learning institutions have worked for the past few years to align coursework, address gaps and ensure instructors with the correct credentials teach each course.

While enrollment for next fall isn’t set yet, the program has generated a lot of buzz and excitement, and it meets a demand of students and employers, Harvatine says.

“One of the things we’re really hearing is just the sheer number of jobs, and not just at our traditional large employers in Sheboygan County, but also from our small and mid-sized companies that are saying, ‘We have IT needs, and we don’t have enough current workers to fill those jobs,’” he says.

To earn the associate degree, students must enroll in the program as freshmen, but they can start it at any time in their high school career and begin earning credits. While it’s a rigorous program, Harvatine says those who complete it will walk away with hard skills in areas such as web development, security and programming as well as soft skills like communication and collaboration.

Cindy Lindstrom, an associate professor of computer science at Lakeland University, believes the program is the only one of its kind in the nation. It’s also one that addresses a huge need, with employers continually telling her they can’t fill technology positions fast enough.

“Everything is technology now. There’s not a position, there’s not a field that doesn’t have technology at the core,” Lindstrom says.

Reaching girls

Education is a major focus for Women in Technology Wisconsin (WIT). The organization aims to get girls excited about technology by providing role models to show them what they can do with a career in technology.

“We want to make sure we get to a better state of parity with the number of women in technology careers, which means we need to go higher up the funnel. We need more college students graduating with technology degrees, which means we need more young people interested in pursuing those degree programs,” says Adrienne Hartman, president of WIT and director of e-commerce and campaign sales for J. J. Keller & Associates.

The organization’s outreach efforts include its WIT4Girls program as well as helping promote the national Girls Who Code program. Hartman says WIT4Girls depends on the work of volunteers, which can be in short supply. However, WIT provides a starter kit that schools or organizations can use.

WIT is partnering with Microsoft to run several DigiGirlz events throughout March and April. The two-hour sessions give girls hands-
on exposure to technology. Microsoft is supplying the Adafruit circuit boards, and volunteers run the programs in partnership with organizations. For example, J. J. Keller is running an event for the Boys and Girls Brigade in Neenah. Companies such as Oshkosh Corp. and Bemis Co. also are getting involved.

The circuit boards have sensors, so they can tell if they’ve been shaken, flipped or heard a loud noise. They also can be coded to play music or display LED lights that can be coded with various colors. Hartman says they appeal to both boys and girls and people who have different learning styles.

“I want the kids to leave the events feeling that they have the knowledge and that they have some excitement about this, that they’re going to pursue it, that they’re going to maybe take a class, they’re going to spend some of their free time working on this,” she says.