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.

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