At the cutting edge: WEGC in Silicon Valley

Issue: Volume 93, Number 22

Posted: 8 December 2014
Reference #: 1H9cs3

The best way to confirm for students that the caricature of the cliché IT worker should have been left in the last century is to get on the plane, says Cris Roughton of Wellington East Girls’ College.

A few years ago, universities were asking schools to do more in preparing leavers for highly academic computer science and information technology courses, says head of digital technologies and computing at Wellington East Girls’ College Cris Roughton. There was a concern that students were arriving at university without the necessary grounding in the more theoretical and technical aspects, such as software programming.

Cris’ suspicion is that we’ve had a tendency in the past to lump the more technical side of computing in with the practical; this was reflected by the fact that computer studies courses were assessed by unit standards. Most courses, she says, tended to concentrate on teaching students how to use applications they might encounter in their working life, rather than delving into the science of computing: we weren’t teaching students about what computers and related technologies actually are, just what they can do. In years gone by, it made sense that the two aspects of computing were taught together, but Cris says that a divergence became necessary to meet the developing needs of the employment market.

In 2011, the first digital technologies courses began to appear in secondary schools, and Cris says that finally students had the means to bridge toward tertiary study; the deep end got a bit shallower.

“Digital technologies, when it came about, addressed the relevant and important strands of the new curriculum, such as programming, computer science, digital media, and that sort of thing. Students were now actually learning to write code for websites, learning to write software. So the subject became substantially more academically demanding, but students were emerging from school prepared for tertiary level study.”

It’s all very well giving students the means to pursue a career at the cutting edge, but of course, they must first actually want to go down the information technology path. There are still a number of remarkably persistent myths that surround the industry, mainly cultural misnomers involving the personal qualities that make for good IT workers: we all know the ridiculous caricature of the stereotypically introverted and socially inept ‘geek’.

Three years ago, Cris and her colleague Edwin Bruce realised that the best way to explode this type of myth is to confront students with the reality, and so the Wellington East Silicon Valley and Seattle trip was set in motion.

“The trip to Silicon Valley is all about giving our students the chance to see what a real job in the IT sector actually looks like. It’s two sided: it’s to make them realise that jobs in the sector are within reach, and helps them understand that it’s not about sitting in a back room coding all day. We want to show our girls how dynamic the industry really is, how varied.”

We are currently – and have been for some time – in the midst of what many see as a world-wide shortage of graduate experts in the technical side of information technology. New Zealand is importing a lot of foreign expertise to meet the shortfall, as are most other developed countries. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment recently updated its Long Term Skill Shortage List, which includes multimedia design, web development, and software and applications programmers among the occupations it identifies.

Stephanie Taylor works in the Open Source Programs department at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. She was able to help Cris organise a bespoke tour of the Googleplex facility and spoke to the WEGC students during their visit. She had the following to say to the group regarding shortages in the industry. Though the figures are US-specific, they are indicative of the situation across most of the developed world.

“There will be 1.4 million new computing-related jobs created in the US this decade [US Bureau of Labor Statistics]. At the current rate, the US will only produce enough undergraduates in computer science to fill 32 per cent of these jobs [National Centre for Women and Information Technology].

“Yet, computer science is one of the best-paying degrees in the U.S [Forbes]. The greatest gaps are in attracting and retaining more students in computer science – particularly girls and minorities, who have historically been under-represented in the field.”

The home of the microchip

A group of 39 students and their adult guardians recently returned from Wellington East’s inaugural pilgrimage to the home of the microchip. The group was able to experience first-hand what it’s like to work for such world-leading tech titans as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Dreamworks, Boeing, and Adobe; there were also visits to the Computer History Museum, the Intel Museum, and of course, there was time for a bit of pure tourism, taking in such icons as the Golden Gate bridge, Union Square, and Chinatown.

The trip was not at all about wandering around in wide-eyed awe, says Cris. She and her colleagues deliberately constructed the tour so that wherever possible the learning was strengthened by student leadership.

“Before we went away, we wanted to make sure that this trip really maximised learning for the girls. So we had worked with the students to come up with an inquiry that they could investigate while over there and report back on when we returned. So they each ‘owned’ one of the places that we visited, and they would find out background knowledge about the company or institution.”

Role models

Cris and her colleagues were impressed at the lengths their corporate behemoth hosts went to in providing authentic learning experiences, as well as inspiration in spades. Everywhere they went, the group was treated to informative and personalised tours, excellent hospitality, and in many cases, an audience with headline-makers such as Jason Schliefer – known for his work as an animator on the Lord of the Rings trilogy – at Dreamworks, who took the time to personally address the girls.

“Dreamworks was absolutely amazing. We actually had Jason Schliefer give a talk to the students. I mean, he’s the guy! He was here in Wellington working on the LOTR trilogy. He seemed really blown away: he wrote on our Facebook page that ours was the brightest group of students he’d ever spoken to!

“It was just amazing having people from these iconic companies make a personal connection with us and being thrilled that we had made the effort, begging the girls to keep in touch. I think more than anything we [as teachers] could have done, having these sorts of people speak to our students about the global shortage of IT specialists, how they would employ more if only they could find them, this was really inspiring for the girls.”

The severe gender bias in information technology is something the industry is working hard to reverse, as many speakers over the course of WEGC’s trip told the group. It’s still seen by some as an occupation that girls just don’t do. This is an anachronistic perception that Cris is determined to change.

“At Google, we had a whole lot of female employees come and join us for lunch. It was just fantastic. About 10 women came and sat amongst us and moved around talking to all the girls. The feedback from the girls was overwhelmingly positive. It was really exciting for them – and inspiring. They were able to tell the girls about their jobs, and what it’s like working at Google.”

“What we found was that these women had jobs that they loved, that they were working in teams – as opposed to the solitary nerd cliché – basically I think these successful women were able to show our students what an exciting variety of roles are open to them.”

At the forefront of progressive corporate culture

Cris reports that another aspect of the trip that she believes changed mind sets was the way in which some of the companies they visited – some of the most progressive in the world – operated. We’ve all heard that the traditional 9 to 5 doesn’t really exist at places like Google, but it’s one thing to read about it, quite another to talk to New Zealanders – one of whom was Dux of WEGC in 1998 – who are over there doing it for real. Cris says that companies like Google and Facebook went out of their way to find Kiwi employees to guide tours and the like, realising that a familiar accent can only further reinforce the idea that these places aren’t the stuff of fairy tales: if you’ve got the qualifications, they’ll take your résumé, too.

“You’re working in this atmosphere where creativity is highly valued, where the normal parameters of a work day are being re-designed. For example, if you’re sick of working on something in particular and you feel like you need a break, you are entitled to go and have a game on the volleyball court, in the gym; there is nothing rigid about working for these places, it’s a new world in which people are valued and aren’t just drones sitting in front of a screen.

“These companies recognise that turning people into factory machinery doesn’t achieve anything. It’s all about enhancing creativity. It’s a completely different working paradigm, and that’s what we wanted to open the girls’ eyes to. They could see that people looked happy, and that there was a real atmosphere of energy. They have free gym memberships, and people have meetings on bicycles that seat eight people! People go for bike rides and have a group meeting as they’re cycling!

“Companies like these are leading us into the future, and I wanted the girls to get excited, and to want to be a part of that.”

Inspiration in spades

When the group arrived back in New Zealand after their inside look at some of the world’s largest and richest companies, the job wasn’t yet done. Soon after their return, the students held a series of presentations at the Wellington East Girls’ College sports centre to an audience of parents and staff.

Students detailed their findings and inquiry outcomes, and Cris says all demonstrated that in terms of authentic learning, the trip had been a huge success. But it wasn’t just the measurable outcomes that resonated.

“During their presentations, the girls didn’t just talk about their inquiries, though they covered that really well. They also talked about what was important and meaningful to them, and their futures.

“I am really proud of the way our group of students conducted themselves. Some of the people we met said that this was the most impressive group of students they’d ever had. That’s really because of the preparation we did, I think. The girls were looking beneath the service and asking the really hard questions. Our hosts really seemed to enjoy that aspect.

“I think that for those girls it’s possibly been life-changing. It’s hard for us to gauge what sort of trickle-down effect has happened just yet, but there’s been a high level of excitement since we returned, and that has had a huge impact on engagement.

“These girls can now make their own future. They know the pathways. They know if they have strong IT skills that there can be an amazing future ahead of them. They have now got the personal connection – they have seen New Zealanders over there and they know what is possible.”

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:45 pm, 8 December 2014

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