Local ninth-graders get jump on computer science degrees

Ninth-graders begin journey toward careers
Mohonasen High School Center for Advanced Technology students and teacher Matthew Battisti are pictured.
Mohonasen High School Center for Advanced Technology students and teacher Matthew Battisti are pictured.

ROTTERDAM — A group of Capital Region ninth-graders are on the fast track to computer science degrees and careers as a new BOCES program moves through its first year.

Last week, sitting with their laptop computers, the students coded their own games: Create a path from point A to point B and move a turtle through the maze. Simple, but not really.

“You’re going to have to grind at it,” math teacher Matt Battisti told the students. “You are going to make a lot of mistakes, but if you plow ahead, you will get a lot of improvement to the game.”

Making sure to save before each new iteration of their game’s underlying code, the students pressed to make the games harder or flashier, testing along the way. Figuring out the coding could be hard at times, the students agreed.

“Playing is hard, too,” said Thomas Yando, a Shenendehowa ninth-grader.

“Especially if you make it a lot harder,” said Dylan Roberts, also of Shen.

This year, about 30 students from the Capital Region BOCES’s two dozen school districts are pioneering a new computer science and technology early-college program: 19 students at Mohonasen’s new Center for Advanced Technology and 11 at Watervliet High School.

In what’s called P-Tech – pathways in technology early college high school – the students take college courses at local community colleges as juniors and seniors, earning a high school and associate diploma in four, five or six years. The program also focuses on computer science and technology, leading to college courses and degrees in computer programming, information technology and security.

Building each academic unit around an overarching project and essential question, and working closely across different classes, the program aims to hone students’ skills in English, math, science and social studies while focusing on broader themes of technology and society.

“It’s something that can’t be googled or answered by one phrase,” said Makensie Bullinger, principal at the Mohonasen campus, referring to the essential questions. She said the units all revolve around projects and something tangible students can produce, culminating in professional presentations. In the next unit, which has a “Shark Tank” theme, students will build a prototype and pitch it as entrepreneurs do on the TV show.

But last week, the students were still just coders, trying to get a short maze to do what they wanted.

“It’s fun because it’s up to you,” said Lora Condon, a Mohonasen ninth-grader. “It’s up to you to get it to do what you want it to do.”

Condon said a friend’s mom recommended the program. She said she doesn’t mind missing out on the standard high school day; she can still eat lunch with her friends at the nearby high school. The students at the Mohonasen site represent six different districts.

Schenectady ninth-grader André Byrd also heard about the program through a friend. He said he hasn’t spent a lot of time with computers, but he wanted to learn more about technology so he could help others do the same.

“I’m getting the hang of it, and it’s not hard,” he said of his early coding work. “I thought it was a good idea to be a future roll mode. People learning this material will help them get a career.”

The students were also planning for a debate over their essential question: Should we produce humanoid robots for mass production? The unit culminated in a debate with nothing less than the fate of artificial intelligence on the line.

The program is expected to expand next year to accommodate another 30 students at each site, with each class entering as ninth-graders. While the students remain part of their home school districts, they spend all of their time in the program, joining Mohonasen or Watervliet students for their PE, health and studio art classes. Kurt Redman, who previously worked as the math and science coordinator in Schenectady City School District, is principal at the Watervliet site. Each site’s P-Tech program draws students from the districts near them.

As the program grows – this year’s 30-member student body will expand to as many as 90 next year and around 150 the following year – its administrators will have to consider options for more space and additional teachers, counselors and other support staff.

The initial ninth-grade class, and the applicant pool, tilted heavily toward boys, with just 1 in 10 students in the Mohonasen class being girls. Bullinger said a priority this year is recruiting more female students.

Bullinger and Redman are starting to pitch the program to families, planning to visit schools and other events around the region. Eighth-graders from Capital Region BOCES districts can apply to join the program, after providing recommendations from a teacher and counselor and going through an interview. The program kicks off with a week-long summer orientation.

In the meantime, as the program’s teachers and administrators work to build upcoming units, students and teachers are spending a lot of time together. Math teacher Matt Battisti shuttles between the two sites, but at Mohonasen, the other three core subject teachers stay there the whole day. So, while one teacher leads the class, others move around the periphery of the class, working with students throughout the day.

“We collaborate on everything,” said Makensie Bullinger, principal at the Mohonasen campus.

The program also looks to work with industry partners, bringing speakers in from local businesses and companies. The students have visited RPI once and have another visit planned for later this fall. Working with the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce, the program hopes to facilitate as many workplace interactions as possible, from mentorships to job shadowing experiences to internships and even jobs.

“These students will have choices after this,” said Karen Fox, director of education programs at the Chamber. “In any field, they need people who are tech savvy.”

On Friday, representatives from Ellis Hospital, CDPHP insurance, Applied Robotics and Transfinder joined a panel on artificial intelligence at the Mohonasen site.

“(Robots) are not going to take over the world,” Ed Miron, of industrial robotics company Applied Robotics, assured the students. “What you will actually see is people’s jobs improve.”

In the end, it may not be that simple, and the students mostly don’t mind the complexity.

“I kind of like the complication, and that I know what it does,” Shen student Dylan Roberts said of computers. He also likes that he doesn’t have to fuss over managing a complicated class schedule and shuttling from one class to the next. He likes that in the BOCES program, everything he needs is in one place.

“I like the complication of computers but not the complication of my classwork.”

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