I just finished a series of workshops with the group I work with at Montclair (PRISM) in conjunction with PCCC. It was very interesting to be working on a joint effort with these groups. I have been working for the PRISM project (and it's previous incarnation, CETERMS) since the summer after my sophomore year. They are a grant funded project that provides teachers with training in the math/science areas. It is actually the place I got my start teaching. Someone was scheduled to do a technology workshop and called out sick. I had been assisting the workshop coordinator, so I knew the workshop, and I gave the workshop that day. I've been doing technology training for them ever since. I've done Internet concepts (and for 1999, that was pretty forward thinking!), PowerPoint, data analysis with Excel...and a few more workshops. I also used to do their Web site (coding the Web pages by hand, instead of with a tool like Dreamweaver). Who knew I would turn out to be good at teaching and would turn it in to my career? I certainly did not, and I don't think the woman who runs the program foresaw this either.
Anyway, this summer presented a very interesting challenge. The theme that was chosen for PCCC and PRISM to work together was Forensic Science. I didn't really see any way I fit in to this, but eventually as I worked to liaise between the two groups, I noticed they had fingerprinting database software. Basically, it would be able to look up people's fingerprints and match them to a local criminal database that you create. It's not FBI, but it's good enough for training and small police forces. When I suggested including that, I was told that they did not have anyone qualified to teach it, and that people were waiting to go to training for the software.
The beauty of studying computers is that once you have a feel for computer interfaces, new technologies are easier to learn. I sat down in front of this program (by a company named Sirchie called ComparaPrint- though oddly enough, I can't find it on their Web site so I can link) and picked it up very quickly, and I have never seen a program quite like this one. I managed to learn how to use the software very quickly because I understand the concepts of databases. This software is basically a big database package, and since I understand databases, all the natural operations (adding a record, performing a query, generating a report) came pretty naturally. Likewise, back in my undergraduate days, I remember teaching myself a programming language called Perl by doing what we called "hacking around". I just sat down, played with the language, and learned the key things in one night. That was easy for me since I learned programming concepts at Montclair (as opposed to receiving training in a specific programming language). Montclair did an excellent job of using the programming language as a vehicle to teach programming concepts.
In most college programs, there is a mix of theoretical concepts and facts, and the general feeling I get is that if you teach students how to learn about their field, it will treat them well going forward. It reminds me of the old saying "give a man a fish, and you will satisfy his hunger...but teach a man to fish, they will eat for a lifetime". Most careers require evolution, and computers perhaps more so, so this is why I do not think it is critical if my students remember what tab the spell check button is on. My personal opinion is that Information Technology should not be a degree where you simply learn where to click around, but a career where you learn how to learn new technologies. This is why, even though I teach software in my application software training classes, I do tend to ask some short answer questions about how the tool can be used.
I had a lot of fun, and I do not think that many people (some of whom may be reading this now, since I did give out this blog address) realized exactly how short of a time I was using that tool.