UPDATE: Since this story in May, 2012, P-TECH has been featured in the President’s State of the Union speech, and on October 25, 2013 got a visit from President Obama himself.
That’s exactly what P-TECH — the Pathways in Technology Early College High School — in Crown Heights, Brooklyn is equipped to do. Its innovative and unique school model pairs each student (grades 9 -14 – yes, 14) with an IBM mentor, providing them with the support necessary to develop the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills needed to succeed in today’s workforce. P-TECH is a public-private partnership between the NYC Department of Education, NYC College of Technology, CUNY, and IBM, and opened its doors to its first class of ninth graders in September 2011.
P-TECH students and their IBM mentors correspond weekly through an online resource called IBM MentorPlace. This website is used to post activities that relate to what the students are learning in school, and to allow communication between mentor and mentee via a discussion board. And it is not just the students that this is beneficial for — the mentors gain too, by sharing their time and knowledge with kids that otherwise would have less of a chance at a tech career.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the school for City Atlas, to see the students and IBM mentors in action at an event in celebration of the 2012 National Engineer’s Week. The event brought 35 IBM volunteers, 103 students, and P-TECH staff together to build and test some creative rocket ships made of balloons.
The students were divided into nineteen different groups, and each group was paired with an IBM volunteer. The task at hand was to build a rocket out of balloons, straws, paper clips, and tape that could carry the greatest amount of weight (in this case, washers) and zoom across the room to the end of a 25 foot fishing line. A tricky task indeed – and the winning team’s rocket toted a payload of a whopping twenty-two washers!
This was just one of many interactive events P-TECH students have with their IBM mentors. I spoke briefly with the Principal of P-TECH, Rashid Ferrod Davis, as well as Robin Willner, VP of Global Community Initiatives at IBM to learn a little more about this innovative school model.
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I asked Principal Davis about the admissions process —
When will your next class hear if they are in P-TECH?
Students will receive their letters by the end of April. Then by May we should be able to start a pre-summer program for our second class – for the new 9th graders.
And P-TECH is open admissions?
So you just have to apply?
You have to come to an information session and say that you’re interested. You get twelve choices as an 8th grader, and you’d want to rank us in one of your top choices, so that you way have a better chance of getting in. So some schools you may have to do an audition, you may have to actually take a test, or you may need to meet an academic requirement. And with open admissions none of that applies to us.
The current students just had to attend an information session?
Come to New York and you’ll have the best employees; we’re preparing them at P-TECHDid just about everyone get in then?
Well, when we opened last year we were at a different part of the process. We went through what was called the “third round” last year because the applications had already been mailed into their guidance counselors by December. It was announced that we would be opening up around February or in March.
As a new school, we only got to deal with students who were not already matched. So that was our first class.
For this year, we were able to be part of the beginning process, going to the large high school fair and then to the individual borough fairs. So that was a little different for us this year. We got four times the number of applicants this year as we got last year! And every year it will grow – the more you are known the more your reputation builds.
But you’re still going to try to have 100 per class?
It’s a hundred and eight each year. So a maximum of six years. It is a six-year model, Grades 9-14.
So that’s really exciting then.
It is! We’re looking forward to growing.
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While experiments continued around us, I walked over to hear more from Robin Willner, VP of Global Community Initiatives at IBM:
How is P-TECH important for the city?
For every student who comes to P-TECH, they’re going to be a great leader in the city, in another ten years – and we’re so proud of them. But it’s also about the whole economic development of New York City – to show that we are a focus for IT careers, that we are a focus for technology – come here and you will have the best employees, because we’re preparing them at P-TECH.
I know that they’re opening up three more schools with this sort of model in New York City. Are those all going to be IBM?
No. They’re each going to have a different company – so we’re looking for a lot of companies to get involved, and work with the city, work with the schools, work with the universities to put this model together.
What would you like to see happen with P-TECH in the next five, ten years?
Well in the next five years I’d like to see all these young people you saw today graduate! Because in five more years, they’ll have finished their sixth year in the program, and we can’t wait for that.
But then also, you know this is not about one school as you said, it’s about getting a lot of new programs or even existing schools to think about having more career-readiness in their program, more college-readiness, more rigor in their curriculum – so we hope we’re helping other schools to change as well.
Right now it’s a one-on-one mentor relationship – each student has their own mentor – is that going to continue when there are a hundred students per class added?
Well we’ll see. I think that’s best. But, we’ll make sure that every student will have a mentor, and that every student will have a mentor that has enough time for them. That we can assure you. Now we may have some IBMers who want to work with more than one student, but every student will have a mentor who’s paying full attention to them.
As the years progress will there be more hands-on experience — more work experience integrated into the program – sort of like an internship?
That’s right. It’s a progression. At the end of six years, they’ll be ready to actually start working at IBM, and so that means that before then, they have to have time to actually be doing work at an IBM site – maybe on a project. And before that they’ll have internships, and before that they’ll shadow. This year they did a lot of visits. So it’s a progression.
I’d like to ask about sustainability – since City Atlas is, as you know, a guide to a sustainable New York City. Does P-TECH incorporate sustainability into its curriculum? Will students learn skills to be able help develop ideas on PlaNYC and other such programs?
Well, I think that there are a lot of things – I think that technology can be a wonderful way to increase our sustainability and decrease our carbon footprint. And IBM has a lot of green solutions that we share with our customers and we’ll be sharing those.
And I actually wanted to ask you about that in general – because IBM is involved in so many different philanthropic initiatives.
Sure, right – P-TECH is just one of the things we do. We work literally with thousands of schools around the world, in early childhood, we work with science teachers. We have a project called World Community Grid that actually we have some great projects coming up for Earth Day, so watch out for that. Ways that people all over the city can get involved in helping to improve the quality of water and air around the world.
But to hear more about that you’ll have to wait for Earth Day. We’re going to have an announcement for Earth Day, and it’s something that everybody can join.
That’s great — so that’s the World Community Grid?
And it will be happening in the city?
It will be happening all over the world but everybody in the city can participate.
That’s great. And, in terms of New York City – would you say that P-TECH is the major initiative of IBM here right now?
Well certainly because we’re developing – we’re still designing and working and improving P-TECH, we’re spending a lot of time here. But we’re working with the whole New York Hall of Science… with NYSci on a program for teachers, on science education and we’re very proud of that. We do other work with the City University of New York – we have a project with Queensborough Community College, we have IBMers volunteering all over the city – so we’re very busy in New York. It’s a big city and there’s lots to do!
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After the winners of the competition had been announced, the event wrapped up with some closing remarks from Rolando Franco, one of the IBM mentors in attendance.
“There are half a billion words in the English language, and that’s five times more than there were in the time of Shakespeare. So the world is changing all around us, ultimately. And, by 2013 – that’s next year – it is predicted that there will be a computer – a super computer design that will exceed the computational capacity of the human brain. And in fact I read that in Japan, they designed a machine that can compute 10 to the 14th computations per second. The human brain is estimated to do around that much. So we are already at the point, of just doing raw computations comparing to how the human mind works. So think about the potential years from now. It is predicted that by 2023 when you guys are out of college you will be able to buy one of these supercomputers for about one thousand dollars.
So what does this mean to you? There will be careers that you’ll be working in that probably don’t exist today. Right? And engineers will be required. So it’s very important for you guys to focus on your school, to become engineers because you’ll help shape the future.”
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As Robin Willner stated, in addition to P-TECH, IBM is involved in a range of other educational initiatives throughout New York City, ranging from a STEM program at Queensborough Community College to the donation of Young Explorer™ computer learning centers to CUNY child care centers, as well as plenty of programs in between. Stay tuned for more on these other IBM initiatives!