School's in for open source advocates

Catalyst Academy aims to engage students in real programming

An impression that schools and even tertiary institutions are not producing the software developers New Zealand needs has led Wellington open-source specialist Catalyst IT to pilot an “Academy”.

This aims to give a limited number of school students a basic grounding in ICT and some experience of real program development.

The Academy's initial intake comprises 17 students from nine Wellington schools. They will spend the latter two weeks of January at Catalyst attending classroom-style workshops and applying what they have learnt to some real open-source projects.

“We do place an emphasis on encouraging young women into IT careers, and we're please to have eight female students participating,” says Catalyst director Mike O’Connor.

The students will learn some of the basics of IT, including how to set up a development machine and how to participate in an open-source project. They will be working on some of Catalyst’s own projects, using an environment including PHP and MySQL on Linux – which Catalyst describes as “the sort of software that got Facebook off the ground.”

It has been evident from the Summer of Tech (formerly Summer of Code) programme that today’s students do their most productive work with tools like PHP, Java and Ruby on Rails – subjects that are not part of the current ICT curriculum, says Catalyst director Don Christie. “A school’s top student in IT will probably be the one who knows how to work a spreadsheet and use PhotoShop.”

When senior Catalyst staff learned their craft, Databank was still in business and offered apprenticeships, Christie says. There is no equivalent today. “We thought about it and decided we had the capability, in terms of space, staff time and training facilities to offer something like this,” he says.

The Academy will enable students to get some experience working alongside seasoned practitioners and not have to depend on their own resources and those of the school, says Christie. While school IT teaching is well-intentioned, “it’s often a matter of a science or maths teacher trying to teach programming when they’ve done no practical programming themselves,” he says.

Students will work a full 9-to-5 day over the fortnight and will receive a $500 grant and a certificate of achievement at the end of the course.

“We'll also be offering our students continued mentoring if they want to get more engaged with an open-source project of their choice at the end of the programme” O’Connor says.

The Academy was quietly promoted to Wellington schools earlier this year and sparked considerable interest. Word got out to schools in other centres and some offered to fly their students to the capital to participate, Christie says; but Catalyst has decided to engage only Wellington students in the pilot year.

Tags catalystDon Christie

8 Comments

Dave Lane

1

This is a great initiative (one of several), which will give NZ secondary computing education a much needed boost. The way things are done in secondary education demonstrates a substantial disconnect between education and industry. We don't need more people who can use MS Word or Excel. We need people who can solve problems with computers, understand the technology behind them, and write software to help others do useful things.

Anthony Neville

2

This is not industry helping students learn open-source development because Catalyst IT is hardly representative of any part of NZ industry. The vast majority of its <b>own</b> clients are government agencies. So what does that tell you about industry's demand for students versed in open-source development? More than likely "successful" students will end up further burdening the taxpayer.

NZRob

3

Excellent initiative Catalyst - great to see the industry helping out our educators by offering this kind of development opportunity.

William Gordon

4

Congratulations on an excellent idea Catalyst.

We need more people who are taught computing rather than just how to be software users. Most general computer course curricula I have seen are little more than repackaged MS-courses.

The whole "taxpayer burden" comment is completely laughable

David Apimerika

5

This is a great initiative on the part of Catalyst. I think it would be wonderful to see this Academy idea extended to all parts of the country. Or at least picked up by the local Technology Institutes, rather than the traditional rubbish they teach.

David ten Have

6

One of the great shortages here in NZ is *engaged* computer literate students. Congratulations to Catalyst for backing this effort.

To Mr Neville:

This is the sort of tax payer burden I create with sorts of open source developers Catalyst is looking to encourage: http://bit.ly/16y11J

Ian

7

I think that a number of points are being missed.

These students already had an interest in some of the technologies being presented as part of the Academy.
They are keen to learn.
Catalyst seems to have risen to meet a previously untapped need .. to encourage Secondary School students to learn beyond what they are being taught in school.

Hearing/seeing the 'burden on the taxpayer' and 'idealogical battles' comments knocks back the effort and learning the students will have put in and got out of the first two days of the two weeks.

Peter

8

Dave, I left NZ in 1975 to arrive in the UK where NZ programmers were snapped up.
They were well trained and skilled and equally on a par with the top UK and US programmers

What happened ?
Why is it that you say "We believe that the education system in NZ (particularly related to technical fields like computing) is currently one of the biggest impediments to building the government's long trumpeted goal of a "knowledge economy" which, empty rhetoric aside, many of us feel is the only way to ensure NZ's future prosperity" ?

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