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Joppatowne High students complete first year in Harford’s P-TECH program, move on to summer classes

Harford Community College instructor Austin Hill posed a challenging question to the Joppatowne High School students in a recent computer information systems class he was leading: Would they be willing to pay to access websites or apps — which currently can be used for free — if it meant their personal data would not be provided to third parties?

“I think it might be better to just pay for a website than to give your information,” student Stacy Kamau said.

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Hill then pressed Stacy and her classmates — rising sophomores who have completed the inaugural year of the P-TECH early college program at Joppatowne — on whether they would pay for sites like Facebook and YouTube, where users can post and view content for free, but their data is shared with advertisers.

Students said they would not be willing to pay for Facebook or YouTube. When asked by Hill if she would pay a monthly fee for smartphone apps she can now download for free, in order to protect her data, Stacy replied that “it depends how much I want the app.” Other students noted that their data is probably in the hands of advertisers and marketers already.

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“Everything has a cost, nothing is free,” Hill advised the students. “There are marketing companies and businesses who are paying for your information.”

Hill’s class, Computer Information Systems-102, is one of two courses the P-TECH students are taking through HCC this summer, along with a fitness/wellness course. Hill, who also serves as director of strategic partnerships for the college, interacted with the students via Microsoft Teams for the virtual CIS class.

The class lasted about an hour, with Hill teaching the students about how the internet works, its origins as the U.S. Defense Department’s ARPANET project that facilitated communication via computers connected on a network, as well as its evolution over the past 50 years into “Web 2.0,” which allows for a much more interactive user experience through discussion boards, social media and video communication services such as Teams or Zoom.

Hill and the students also discussed how the internet has changed person-to-person communication, from sending letters to exchanging emails, how to safeguard their financial information when shopping online, the effectiveness of online activism, as well as maintaining privacy in an age of data sharing and GPS-enabled tracking of people’s locations via their smartphones.

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“We’re never alone,” Hill said.

The P-TECH, or Pathways in Technology Early College High School, program is a partnership between Harford County Public Schools, the community college and the Army Communication-Electronics Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground. It is headquartered at Joppatowne High School, the first school in Harford County and the ninth in Maryland to host a P-TECH program.

The 2020-21 school year, which concluded last Monday, was the inaugural year for P-TECH in Harford County. School administrators visited the homes of 30 incoming freshmen in late August to welcome the students and give them yard signs indicating they are part of P-TECH. Summer classes for the now-rising sophomores started at HCC earlier this month.

“It’s such a tremendous opportunity for those students,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said during a June 7 Board of Education meeting as he marked the beginning of summer classes.

P-TECH is a dual enrollment program, through which students work concurrently on earning a high school diploma and associate’s degree in four to six years. They can work in either a cybersecurity or computer information systems pathway, earn a degree and professional certifications, then go on to a four-year school or start their careers, according to Shomari Zachary, P-TECH coordinator at Joppatowne.

Students also have opportunities for internships and interacting with mentors who work at APG, plus they have a number of seminars on life skills such as organization and time management, self advocacy, conflict resolution and exploring careers.

Zachary said the students “did a very good job” during the past year, amid spending much of the year learning virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that the majority of freshmen maintained a 3.0 grade point average, and he praised the youths for being advocates for themselves.

“I cannot commend them enough on the effort and the time that they put into the classes,” Zachary said.

Several students talked, after the class, about their experiences in the first year of P-TECH and the value of regular interaction with mentors and different life skills courses.

Davina Lyttle recalled learning about topics such as goal setting, budgeting and finance, as well as other information she expects will help her and her classmates through their high school careers.

“Our mentors were really good, too, with continuing the lessons that we learned in class,” Davina said.

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