NORWALK, Conn. – Stephen Reps shared engineering expertise with Norwalk high school freshmen Thursday, using spaghetti noodles, chocolate and marshmallows. First comment: The most stable element in architecture is a triangle.
Reps was one of many IBM volunteers working for the first time with Norwalk High School freshmen enrolled in the Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA), the first P-Tech (Pathways in Technology) academy in Connecticut. The kids were divided into groups of five and six, sitting at tables in the Norwalk Community College (NCC) West Campus cafeteria and working together, in their fourth day of a week-long student orientation, to build bridges out of the noodles, using marshmallows as glue and making platforms out of graham crackers.
NECA is a six-year school and the students who stick with it will graduate with both a Norwalk High diploma and an NCC associates degree in applied sciences – for free. They will take college classes concurrently with their high school classes, be mentored by IBM volunteers and serve internships.
Much of the orientation has been at NCC to quickly establish the idea of college in the ninth-graders’ minds, NPS Communications Director Brenda Williams said.
The fun with noodles and marshmallows was a team building exercise, NECA Director Karen Amaker said.
“One of the things that we talked about through the entire week is that students are going to work together a lot and they need to know how to navigate lots of different worlds,” Amaker said, referring to being in high school and college at the same time, being in an academic setting part of the time and a professional one at other times.
“Also, they are responsible for and to each other,” Amaker said. “Being a NECA scholar is more than just the academics, it means really being part of a community, a much larger community, both NECA and Norwalk Public Schools and Norwalk High School, but also part of NCC. All of those partners come together and what does that look like for you? How do you navigate between those different venues, if you will. So that is what they are learning today, working in cooperation with one another, working with an adult that they have never met before. Coming up with questions about their experience with IBM.”
As the deadline drew near, Reps’s group – who dubbed themselves the Tech-naughts – made a cracker box. Mouhamed Mbengue stuck individual noodles through graham cracker holes; part of their design experimentation was to make a strong stick by sticking a bunch of noodles through a marshmallow altogether.
“I think you better stop right there. There is such a thing as over-engineering,” Reps said. The kids piled peanut butter cups on top of their contraption and waited, asking Reps about salaries at IBM. Reps mentioned a $45,000-a-year salary and eyes glowed. There were little smiles. They asked how much higher that might go and he said $100,000, but cautioned that was after 20 years and depended on other factors.
“It has to be supply and demand, like everything else,” he said. “If there are not a lot of people who do what you do, they’re going to pay you more money.”
He went on to explain binary language to them. They asked what type of software was being used at IBM; he said that every software available was used there. Some people use software language they learned 35 years ago, he said.
A short while later they were declared the winners of the bridge-building contest. Their prize was to be first in line for lunch, bragging rights and a prize to be named later.
Amaker said there hadn’t been much teaching this week, but the adults had learned a lot from the “very, very talented” students. There are 94 students enrolled, meaning there is room for six more.
“These students are really at the forefront in saying this is really good for us, it’s really good for Norwalk and it’s really good for the state of Connecticut,” Amaker said. “They are showing us even by their participation this week that they are really ready for the challenge.”