Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Our Google Hangout

Last Tuesday, twenty Burlington high school students had the opportunity to visit Google offices in Cambridge, MA. The purpose of the trip was to show students interested in computer science what they could potentially do with a computer science degree and present them with an opportunity to learn from some of the best computer scientists in the world.

Students were greeted by three developers, Jessica, Adam, and Dan, from Google and they presented us with a brief background of the company and an overview of Google's history. We toured several areas of the office and students made note of the lack of cubicles and the transparent working environment. Employees were not isolated from each other, nor did walls partition them. Workspaces were open and visible enabling a collaborative environment. Employees moved around freely and took occasional snack breaks.

Students also took note that Google employees are never too far from food and that the food choices were color coded for their nutritional value. When it came time for lunch later in the day, students were impressed by the abundance of healthy choices available for lunch. However it was sushi day, so most students opted for the mac and cheese.

Not long into the tour one student asked, “Why are schools so disconnected from how people work on a daily basis?” “Why can’t schools look more like this office?” I didn’t have an immediate answer because I have been pondering the same question for years. I reminded this student that a Google office is a small sample of how things occur on a daily basis at most companies, but reinforced how committed Google is to providing the best environment for productivity and efficiency for all of its employees. Apparently Google is onto something.

After the tour, students sat down in a conference room with three Google developers and a Chrome OS developer to brainstorm their ideal computer science course. Before we started, I shared with students that we were in the drafting phase of putting together a hybrid course tentatively titled, “Google Academy” that will be co-taught by the three Google developers in the room and a Burlington high school teacher. The course is tentatively scheduled for next fall and would be available in two sections, as a half-year elective.

Here is the draft of the course description...

The Google Academy will be a unique experience that examines a variety of topics in computer science and explores several languages such as Python, C++, Visual Basic, etc. Beyond the programming aspect of the course, students will participate in an authentic, collaborative environment that promotes transparent, purposeful learning. Students will learn first hand what it takes to work in a major company while learning how to manage time and projects independently.  
This course will commence both online and face-to-face. The Google Academy will be co-taught by multiple Google programmers and one Burlington High School teacher. The course will also require bi-weekly participation at the Google offices in Cambridge. The Google Academy will expect the student to work independently, responsibly and manage their time and assignments throughout the duration of this course.

Once we described the potential course, we asked the students how they wanted to structure the course and what they wanted to learn. Students began listing areas of interest in the context of computer science ranging from open source coding to coding games and iOS applications. It was great to hear students discuss what they wanted to learn as opposed to hearing what they have to learn.

Students generated ideas that filled two white boards. The room was filled with conversation and questions. It was rewarding to sit back and watch students casually interact with these engineers and ask them questions about what it takes to get to where they are in their careers. It was one of those moments as an educator where you see the great potential for our schools and our students.

Students left excited and eager to hear more about the course that they just helped design. They were also excited about the free Pepsi “Next” they obtained from the vendor on the street pitching the new soft drink to pedestrians.

I’m excited that my district and administration are open to the opportunity for connecting with the business sector to give our students a purposeful learning experience. I’m grateful for the connection I made with three generous Google employees willing to volunteer their time to guide our students through this course. I hope this is a trend that catches on in the education community; a trend that enables more schools to embrace, not limit technology opportunities that connect students with the community and provide purposeful learning experiences.