I recently made a trip to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. Two colleagues and I set out to meet the students of the Lee County High School (LCHS) Intro to Computer Science class. I was excited to show off this famous climbing area even though I would not have an opportunity to take advantage of any climbing, this trip. My colleagues, Nolan and Isaac, were excited to visit LCHS and gracious enough to humor me with my climbing related chatter and pit stops. We ate breakfast at Miguels, dinner at the Rockhouse, stayed in Lago Lindas beautiful Breezy Point cabin, and even squeezed in a hike up to the Motherlode. While the trip was short, it was very productive with meetings, teaching and lots of student time. While it is exciting to see this program get off to a strong start, we have some challenges to overcome, and a long road ahead of us before we can claim any victory. However, at this point, it is clear that this pilot program Microsoft is funding has a lot of support from the faculty, school board, State, parents and students, which is a great first step towards success!
A little background, I’m a rock climber and like many rock climbers, I love to travel the world to visit various climbing destinations often migrating like a bird looking for better climates with some seasonal rotation. Developed outcroppings of rock can be gems on the outskirts of town or in very remote locations. The Red River Gorge (aka The Red) is no exception, located in rural central and eastern Kentucky.
Over the last few years at The Red, I had been doing fitness and nutrition consultations at the local Recreational Center, managed by Andy Owens. During that time, it occurred to me that, like me, there is a lot of talent that descends climbing destinations that could be leveraged to help the locals. The locals appeared to be interested and eager to learn something new and improve the quality of their lives, whether health or educationally related.
Therefore, it seemed a natural extension to explore the town’s computer needs and see if there was anything in that area that needed some help. First, the Recreational Center does tutoring but their computers were out of date. The Vocational School had really good computers, but the vocation kids were learning how to be Executive Administrators, which hardly takes advantage of the compute power in front of them. The city computer center ran out of a federally funded grant and could not reapply for the funds; therefore, it was unclear if the computer center would persist beyond the end of 2011 (I didn’t get a chance to see if they are still around or not). I started with the Recreational Center and donated hardware and updated their software. Enlisting a friend, Kyle Roseborrough, who owns his own web development business, we did a career talk to the Seniors at the Vocational School. There wasn’t much I could consider for the third option, but while hanging out for one of my consultation hours at the Recreational Center, a man came up to me and introduced himself as Andy’s dad and Chairman of the School Board—William Owens. William’s next statement to me was ‘I hear you have an interest in our kids…’ And, with that connection, doors just opened with opportunity for this rural High School.
Kevin Wang, the man behind the TEALS program at Microsoft, evaluated and visited the school last fall, then proceeded to approve my nomination for a pilot program for Introduction to Computer Science as a distance learning course. The nomination went before the TEALS board and, to my excitement, was accepted last spring! If all went well, LCHS would get this course for the Fall of 2012.
Week 3 of class and the first of 37 other schools across 4 different school districts to be underway, our students will do their first show-and-tell of their first project: Mario. Make Mario move left and right, jump up and change his costume to reflect when he needs to face left to walk left, face right to walk right and look like he’s jumping when he jumps. For extra credit, they could create a platform for Mario to jump on to. Our visit to the school was timed to coincide with the first project. Aside from teaching the kids in person on this trip, we ended up doing a lot more and creating opportunity for the students to have as much time as they could with us before we left. This was a huge PLUS! And, a huge thanks to the school for prioritizing us this way.
One thing I was nervous about on this trip was meeting with the State, School Board and Superintendent. I’d never before had to meet with people at that level, but it showed how committed and interested the entire education chain is to this program’s success. Our meetings were short, they dropped in on our class, and I have a laundry list of action items from our two days of discussion. Distance learning, as you might imagine, has some challenges with logistics. Everything from classroom setup, projection of video, online homework location, conforming to the school’s pre-existing grading and assignment system, to figuring out how to support the kids with internet at home. Apparently, this town is too small (per capita) that AT&T have said (literally) that they don’t care about providing internet to this town. AND, they have an idea to remove LAN support. This simply will not do!! Because of the terrain, the region does not lend itself easily to wi-fi. Even the State representative threw his hands up saying the problem was much bigger than him. Neighboring counties have been wired and are supported better than this. How can we get the same support for little Beattyville? Or, what other options do these kids have? Many of them have other obligations outside of school and therefore cannot be expected to stay after to get homework done on the computer. This will continue to be a limitation going forward and one for which I hope we can find an alternative solution soon.
Spending time with the kids was a treat and certainly the highlight of this trip. If you have ever worked with kids, you can understand how fulfilling it is to watch them learn and grow. Our kids are talented, motivated and inspirational and we are very lucky to have this group in our class. Nolan, Isaac and I each identify with the students in some way, reflecting on our own experience learning Computer Science and we took the opportunity to share how we got here and create a vision for where this class could take them once they graduate. Our class is made up of mostly Seniors and this seemed like an important point to stress. I really hope the kids got something out of our time there and maybe something we talked about over the last 2 days will stick or make a difference for one of them. It’s a long road ahead for them, and we are only a blip on their life screen. The support is strong in this initial phase and there are many challenges that lay ahead for us. Stay tuned for progress and updates.