In most households, children are considered the resident IT expert by the adults. Need help programming that LED light display? Ask the 12-year-old. Did the phone update mess up all your apps? The 15-year-old can straighten that out for you. Need help setting up the the WiFi router? Just wait until the 7th-grader gets home from school.
Understanding how technology works seems to come easy to almost every person under the age of 21. Now, some schools are using tech clubs and classes to give students with these skills and interests the opportunity both to feed their thirst for knowledge and to gain valuable real-world experience assisting educators and others in the community in a tech support role.
This approach not only helps cash-strapped school districts grapple with increasing demands on their IT departments, but meets a need for career and technical educational (CTE) opportunities, with some students even able to earn accreditation in the process. Those who venture out of their schools to assist in the community are also learning the reward of helping others while honing their own skills.
Tech in service
Jacqui Murray, a veteran K-18 tech teacher, taught a service-learning class that brought 8th-grade students into a senior center to help residents use the technology they already had. The senior citizens wanted to learn how to do things like take a photo with a smart phone, make videos and use Skype to talk to their families.
“The students loved it,” said Murray, who now teaches graduate classes to education students. “It was very exciting for the seniors. Watching them talk to a family member on Skype just brought tears to your eyes.”
Taking selfies and posting and editing photos are simple acts for most 8th-graders, even if they aren’t overly “techy.” But to senior citizens, many of whom grew up listening to the radio or just watching TV for entertainment, video conferencing with grandchildren in another state is a mind-bending concept.
To make this work, Murray brought in a guest speaker who had experience working with the elderly to prepare students on what to expect. Then, she set up time outside of the school day to visit the senior center.
The students worked in groups to assist the seniors in accomplishing tasks before returning to class to figure out ways to solve their problems. The program gave the students problem-solving and customer service experience, as well as the opportunity to work within a team for a common goal.
“They are honing their technology skills, presentation skills and learning how to listen to people and respond,” Murray said.
The program was very popular, Murray said. But it did take some work and effort. She has fielded many questions about the program from teachers around the country.
Queens tech squad
Queens Technical High School in Long Island City, New York, which offers several CTE programs, has an after-school, in-house tech “support group” that troubleshoots, fixes and assists in the installation of any IT work in the building. The group works on SMART Boards, printers, networking printers/PCs, laptops, desktops, upgrades and other devices. At this point, the students are only working inside the building. However, Nicole Zagada, computer repair technology instructor at the school, is seeking community partners so the students can gain experience working with the public.
“I am looking to work with other elementary schools in the neighborhood and senior citizen centers to assist with any technical needs,” she said.
Zagada said the experience has brought many of the participants out of their shell. Some of her students were extremely shy in the beginning of the year.
“They have a changed attitude of confidence, motivation and the willingness to help others,” she said. “It makes me so proud to see how much they’ve grown and changed in a positive way.”
Zagada says the format for starting a program like this is rather simple, provided there is a dedicated teacher willing to help out the school and the students. She recommends first starting a MOUSE Squad group, which is popular in New York City.
“I was a MOUSE Squad student myself when I was in high school and it was fantastic,” she said. “It was my first real-world work experience before graduating high school.”
In the Prosper Independent School District, a class called Talon Tech trains students to maintain, repair and fix Chromebooks and other technology in the 4,000-student Prosper High School. The name Talon Tech is a nod to the school’s eagle mascot.
“It really helps the district by taking off a lot of the IT department’s workload,” said Michael Pflug, K-12 STEAM curriculum designer for the Texas district. “The students are trained to troubleshoot and even work with the teachers if there are problems.”
The students’ assistance frees up time for the IT department to focus on issues that have higher priority, while the students handle the lower priority maintenance and easy fixes.
In return, the students work toward A+ certifications and are able to pursue certain designations and licenses.
“The kids are given the skills and knowledge to help support the whole district,” Pflug said.
He also noted the high demand for workers with tech experience.
“IT is really big here near Dallas,” Pflug said. “With all the massive headquarters that are moving in, like Liberty Mutual and State Farm, we’ve seen a boom in our IT classes and enrollment in the middle school coding course is going up.”