Mi’Yana Solomon said she never considered herself a techie. When she decided she wanted to try to get a job with her school’s student-run computer help desk, she wasn’t sure how it would go, especially when she learned the first rule in her computer architecture class.
“Try three before you ask me,” John Richardson, who directs St. Joseph’s Academy’s Computer Sciences program, said. “When they run into a problem, they have to try to solve it three different ways on their own before they ask me for help.”
It’s a way of thinking that can be a culture shock for a lot of students, said Claire Luikart, a 2007 graduate of St. Joseph’s who returned to the school after college as technology special projects manager. It can be intimidating, and not just because of the expectation of self-reliance.
The all-girl Catholic high school has a reputation for producing tech-savvy students, and the help desk and 3-D printing lab are run by the savviest.
It’d be easy to assume that this kind of self-reliant attitude would limit collaboration, but, in fact, it tends to make the collaboration more sophisticated, because each student is required to approach problems in a unique way, Richardson said. This way of learning gives each student a deeper understanding of each system they’re learning, he said, and that doesn’t apply just to the computer lab.
“We take them to conferences and they give presentations. When the time comes to take questions, the adults tend to ask them questions thinking they will get simple answers, and these girls just blow them away with their level of knowledge,” he said.
At the beginning of December, a few of the students helped lead a session on student-run help desks at the Louisiana Association of Computer Using Educators in New Orleans.
Though it started very small, the help desk has been operating for about 15 years, which makes it among the first, if not the first, all-female student-run high school help desks in the country, Richardson said.
“And when I say help desk, I mean certified to diagnose and make warranty repairs by the computer manufacturers,” he said. “If you’re in Baton Rouge on business, and you have trouble with, say, your Toshiba laptop, and you call Toshiba looking for a certified repair shop nearby, St. Joseph’s Academy will be on that list,” he said. “Our technicians are qualified using the same metrics that a Radio Shack does.”
Climbing the ladder
Students who are part of the help desk program only work to maintain student computers, at least during their computer class time.
“They cannot work during school hours, and they can’t work if they haven’t finished their homework or school projects, so we’re not running a sweat shop here,” Richardson said.
“While they would be qualified to start working on computer repair right now, this is not a technical school — it’s a college prep school,” he said.
But the technical knowledge and, more importantly, critical thinking and logic skills they are developing at the help desk will make them that much more competitive in college.
But it’s a long road to get to the help desk.
Each student starts off, like Solomon did, with a class.
“Every day is a job interview. We’re always watching how they approach problems,” Richardson said.
If Solomon didn’t start out as a techie, she may well leave as one.
“The first class was just getting to know everyone, how everything works,” she said. She started hanging around the computer lab, headquartered in the library, more and more often.
The library is a fitting place for the lab, Richardson said, because of his other rule: Read, think, repeat.
Read everything. Read anything. Just don’t stop reading.
And sometimes, that reading includes computer manuals, because of the first rule: Try three before you ask me.
Students set a lot of their own agenda, learning-wise, choosing projects to further their computer knowledge. Once they’ve got the hang of basic troubleshooting, they may be assigned to the intake desk.
“This is the first filter, where the basic problems are addressed,” Richardson said. Students at this level know how to reset computers, recover lost data, reinstall drivers or handle other software problems.
If the problem cannot be addressed there, it is rerouted to the lab itself.
The lab is where deeper diagnostics happen; parts are ordered from the manufacturer and replaced.
Students who work for the lab start off at minimum wage, and move up to as much as $15 to $16 an hour, before school starts Monday through Friday, and after it ends.
“Obviously, 6:40 a.m. is the least popular shift,” Richardson said.
Solomon’s next goal is to work up to a service learning trip.
Right now, she’s learning the intricate details of the computers that just cycled out of St. Joseph’s 1:1 program, which assures each student a school-issued laptop.
When the school buys new computers, it refurbishes the old computers, and technicians deliver them to a site chosen by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Students have delivered computers to Nicaragua, South Africa, Puerto Rico and many other places around the world.
“So they have to know how to do everything. They may have to build cables, configure switches, how to network the system. It has to be in good working order when they leave,” he said.
Furthermore, the students have to teach their counterparts at the school they travel to, so that those students will be able to maintain the network.
In order to participate, students also have to work to pay for a portion of the trip, “so they really have to want to do this,” Richardson said.
It’s hard, Solomon said. Last week, she and a few other students working toward their next service learning trip to Puerto Rico delivered some computers to an alternative school in Baton Rouge.
“This is sort of a tryout,” Richardson said. They set up a network there, and taught the students how to maintain the network. “We’re also looking to see if everyone gets along. It’s good to know that before you leave the country.”
They also have to research the culture of the country they’re traveling to, and learn some of the language.
For senior Caroline Wright, her service learning trip to a school in Puerto Rico was profound.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said. Especially since she helped deliver and set up a computer network and computer lab at a school that didn’t have funds to buy chairs to go in it.
“She won’t brag on herself, but I will. She quietly left the lab, called her parents, who donated the funds to buy chairs. We went directly to the store and got them,” Richardson said.
“I’ll hold that experience with me forever,” she said.
The students also man the school’s 3-D printers, and all students have access to the printers for school projects, from art to music to sciences.
One student made a clarinet reed out of plastic, which didn’t work out, so they reconfigured the printer to use a wood pulp substance.
“It’s amazing what they’re coming up with,” said Luikart, who got her start at the computer help desk at St. Joseph’s when, as a student, she broke her laptop and didn’t have the funds to replace it, so she worked it off.
As for Solomon, when she started in Richardson’s program, she intended to go to medical school and specialize in pediatric orthopedic surgery. Now, she’s leaning toward computer sciences.
Most students won’t make that choice, Richardson said, but, then again, that’s not really the point.
Thinking, learning, and using those skills to serve others, is.