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STEM Education: High School Students Network with the Community

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A senior center in Leetsdale, PA now has both wired and wireless computer connections, along with the computers themselves, thanks to students from nearby Quaker Valley High School. The students found funding for the project themselves, including computers, since the senior center had no computers previously. As part of the project, they also wired the building and offered classes to seniors on how to use the new systems.

It's an example of how Quaker Valley students aid the local community through knowledge gained during a two-year elective course on computers and networking that the high school offers. The school's Cisco Networking Lab offers plenty of hands-on practice, with one computer per student, along with a roomful of routers, switches, a rack of computers, and a simulated network. Students who complete the two-year course are ready to take Cisco's Certified Cisco Network Administrator (CCNA) exam.

The program is unusual in that this type of hands-on networking training is more commonly offered at vocational schools for older students. At Quaker Valley, by contrast, students in grades 9, 10, and 11 are encouraged to take the courses and explore their interest in computers and networking. According to Quaker Valley computer science teacher Darren Mariano, offering this type of education to high school students lets them dabble in computer science and networking early in their schooling, then make a decision about whether it's a career they want to pursue. "It gives them a foundation," Mariano said. "A lot have gone on to become engineers. It allows them to get great experience early on."

Although completion of the course qualifies them to do so, few of Mariano's students actually go on to sit for the Cisco exam and obtain a CCNA.

The computers and networking program at Quaker Valley is also unusual in that it emphasizes a community service element, in which students are required to work on a project that gives something back to their local community. In addition to the senior center, another project Mariano's students worked on was renovating two elementary school classrooms for computers, so that students didn't have to use temporary trailors. As part of class, Mariano said, his students wired the building themselves.

The networking academies are an effort by Cisco designed to help address the gap between IT jobs, and skilled workers to fill them. Cisco said that as of late 2006, it had nearly 70,000 students across the United States enrolled in one of its 11,000 networking academies; two-thirds of those academies are in secondary schools, with most of the rest in community colleges.

The classes offered as part of the academy program aren't just about networking. Schools that adopt the program offer a curriculum that integrates math, science, and computer language skills to lay foundations to degrees that can include engineering or computer science. Schools can offer the courses individually, or they can be integrated into degree and career programs to provide "seamless pathways between high schools, community, and technical colleges," according to Cisco.

Quaker Valley High School has long been known as a technology powerhouse. The high-achieving school, which graduates 150 students a year, initiated a laptop technology program in 2000 after winning a $5 million grant from Pennsylvania. It consistently ranks among top public high schools nationwide.

A big plus with the program, Mariano said, is that it gives Quaker Valley graduates an advantage on college applications by giving them hands-on experience in networking and computers, without the focus on computer gaming that is common among high school students. "We've found that a big benefit [of the program] is [that] it separates our students from other schools in terms of skills," Mariano said.

The two-year program at Quaker Valley consists of four semesters of work and basically covers what's required to pass Cisco's CCNA exam certification. That includes 16 courses covering a range of topics from basics on how to build and maintain a network to creating a Web site, object-oriented programming, and more complex IT concepts, such as applying advanced troubleshooting tools. Quaker Valley also offers an Information in Technology course that can prepare a student to obtain the A+ certification from the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA).

The lab at Quaker Valley includes 16 PCs, one per student, along with a simulation of a wiring closet, two floor-to-ceiling racks, and Cisco routers and switches that can be used to simulate how a network would be set up within a building.

One advantage of working closely with Cisco: The networking giant supplies the curriculum, which is all online and changes yearly as networking, especially wireless technologies, change rapidly.

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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