Oct 31 2006

Building Leaders Through Student-Technician Program

Students learn, gain valuable work experience and bond with classmates when they participate in Kent School's innovative student-technician program.

A little spilled milk is nothing to cry about. At least that’s what Chris Denzel realized when spilling milk on the keyboard of his notebook PC helped him find his niche at Kent School four years ago. When the freshman headed to the tech center to get his computer fixed, he found a friendly, supportive group that would guide him through his four years at the Connecticut boarding school.

“The guys in the tech center were so cool and fun that I couldn’t leave,” says the senior who’s held the job of student technician for four years. “They were my kind of people—funny and intelligent and interested in what I was interested in. It was the perfect fit.”

The student technician program is part of an ongoing jobs program at Kent, which requires all students to pitch in and maintain a “job” while enrolled at the school. At first, being a student technician was just another one of those jobs—a way to “occupy some kids,” recalls Adam Fischer, the school’s director of technology. But when Fischer arrived at Kent eight years ago, that began to change.

“Initially, they were just looking for another job to assign students to, but now student tech is a tough job to get,” says Fischer. “We tried to make it a job where they’d be learning about technology and would have the chance to play with new technology. We also wanted to give them a good place to have as a center for their daily activities.”

Some students have made the tech center a second home, and the work doesn’t stop there. “Techs often help students outside the tech center—since it’s a boarding school, they get asked questions in their rooms quite often,” Fischer says.

With the technology center hours in addition to their school work, the students assume more responsibility than most. “They get to learn how to deal with people who are very upset because they’ve lost something [on their computer] that’s important to them,” Fischer explains. “It’s good for the teachers as well, since I get to work with these really amazing young people.”

Getting the Gig

More and more students are lining up to get this job, according to Fischer. Some students are even applying to Kent School because of the student tech program’s reputation.

“We have more [students] applying to it now and a lot more people want to do it than we need,” he says. “The only requirement that I have coming into the program is that you be in excellent academic standing. You have to have some interest in technology obviously, but you don’t have to be knowledgeable already. You just have to want to do it.”

With about 30 slots—and 550 students to serve—the student techs are required to work either one of two shifts: one free block each day (45 minutes five days a week) or one evening for two hours during one of the nights the center is open late. However, the tight-knit tech team spends many of their free periods or evenings at the center anyway.

The tech center offers most students a sense of community and belonging as well as the occasional pizza party, movie and a daily dose of animal crackers. “Many hang out, study here, bring and leave books here, and make it their second home,” Fischer says.

A PC specialist at Kent for five years, David Samson believes the program is a great opportunity for young people. “I’ve seen kids come into this program and blossom from the experience,” Samson says.

The students gain not only a sense of community, but valuable job experience. “I’ve learned a lot being here,” says Adam Lockard, a senior. “I know I’ll be able to take this experience and apply it elsewhere.”

Opening New Doors

Stephanie Geewax, a sophomore, was considering a career in music, but the tech program changed her mind. “I plan to go into math and computer science, and I’m taking a summer program at Carnegie Mellon on computer programming,” she says. “It opened up a lot of new things for me. I didn’t know that much about computers, but here, if you have a problem and don’t know how to fix it, there are lots of people to help you out.”

The student tech program has created a sense of community for its participants, but it’s also raised technology awareness on campus. “We try to pull in kids who might not always be seen as techies, and that seems to have worked well for us,” says Samson. “We look for diversity—male and female students who relate to different groups, as well as bilingual students.”

The technology program is woven into the school’s culture. “More and more, technology is being seen as not only a good job, but a route to success,” Samson says. “Student techs are not just fringe people anymore but the up-and-coming leaders of society.”

That attitude was reflected at Kent last year when four student techs were elected student leaders on campus. Student leaders are senior students who live on campus and belong to the senior council, which is responsible for planning events, bringing attention to pertinent issues and creating changes at the school. “The fact that four of the [student leaders] were student techs meant a lot to us,” Fischer says.

Of course, the tech program also benefits the school. While student techs only work on students’ computers, that still adds up to approximately 650 computers (some students own more than one).

“Having these students troubleshoot all those computers has to eliminate half of the computers that we have to fix,” says Fischer. “They can troubleshoot. They can’t do the hardware repair, but they can often identify what the problem is and help to resolve it. They have gotten to a point where they provide a service that we would be hard-pressed to do.”

According to Samson, the program fills a need for both the school and the students. “Most of the kids are living on campus and can fix computers even if the tech center isn’t open,” he says. “We all need a place that we can identify as our own, and I think this provides that for those who live with us. It’s the best job on campus.”

Build Your Own

Is it possible for other institutions to recreate the student tech program and have the same success? “I’m always asked that by peers at other schools who say they’re working on getting student technicians, but are having all these challenges,” says Fischer. “They can’t get the funds to do it, and many say they have a problem with time.

“It’s got to have to do with the culture. We have it built into the culture of Kent that you’re going to have to do something while you’re at school here, but we [the student technician program] ask a lot more of students than the school’s job program does in general,” he says. “But, if it’s kind of a cool job and it’s a good place to hang out, then the time doesn’t seem to be an issue.”

While creating that type of culture is a big challenge, Fischer also believes that those who want to build a program like Kent’s need to know why they’re doing it—and pick the right type of students.

“I look for kids who are interested in learning about technology,” he says. “They’re excellent at helping other kids find solutions and define the issues that are facing other students.”

“Then we found ourselves with all these smart, hardworking, fun kids that we enjoyed being with, so we decided that we should find a way to say thank you to them,” Fischer continues. “It became about building a community and spreading the good word about technology to the rest of the school. I think that’s how it’s grown for us to be part of the whole cultural thing.”

What are the pieces you need to put in place in order to develop a successful student technician program? “Figure out what you’re doing and why and then make sure that all your decisions are supporting that,” Fischer says. “If you don’t have a group where people are used to pitching in to get something done at your school, then I think you’re going to have an uphill battle.”

It’s also important to include different rewards. Besides regular pizza parties, barbeques and the occasional trip to a computer show, student techs are given a lapel pin for each year they’ve served on the team. “Many graduates say [the program] was the most rewarding part of their Kent School experience,” says Samson.

Starting a Student Tech Program

• Understand why you want to do this. If it’s just to park kids in the tech center, the program won’t be as effective as it could be.

• Build a sense of work ethic into your school culture. Part of the reason the student tech program works so well at Kent School is because all kids know they have to do some type of job at Kent.

• Look for kids who are interested in technology. If they want to learn, they’ll want to participate.

• Create a welcoming community that offers a place to learn along with a place to grow.

• Offer rewards. Pizza parties, field trips and, most of all, positive feedback and respect for the students’ efforts are welcome ways to say thank you.

Nominating a Star

Do you know an educator, school or district that uses technology to solve a problem or fulfill a dream? Does that individual or institution find novel ways to motivate and reward its students or faculty to succeed using technology tools? If so, why not make them a star?

CDW·G is accepting nominations on an ongoing basis for the Tinfoil Star Award, which honors educators who go above and beyond to motivate students to learn and succeed. To submit a nomination, visit our Web site at edtechmag.com. Click on the “feedback” button on the left navigation bar to send us an e-mail that describes why this person, school or district deserves the award. Winners chosen by CDW·G receive a $1,000 donation to their school and are featured in Ed Tech magazine.

Our current winner, Kent School in Kent, Conn., fosters a warm sense of community in its popular program for young IT techs. Former winners include: Summit Elementary School in Ashland, Ky., which celebrates student and teacher successes with standing ovations (featured in our Winter 2004 issue); Poinciana High School in Kissimmee, Fla., which found catharsis in creating a book of essays after a devastating hurricane (Spring 2005 ); and Miami Lakes Educational Center in Miami Lakes, Fla., which educates girls about IT career opportunities (Summer 2005 ).

Based in San Francisco, Catherine LaCroix is a freelance writer who reports on technology and education trends for print and Web publications.