Seneca ramps up efforts to interest youth in IT

Natalie’s eyebrows knitted in concentration as she and her friend intently watch the terminal while typing a piece of computer code. Moments later the teens’ faces beamed with pride as the screen shows that they have successfully activated ventilation fans crucial in forcing in warm air to a freezing room in the Newnham Campus of the Seneca College in Toronto.

Yes, that’s right, girls in Grade 10 were controlling the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system – at least in a simulated computer environment. Some 200 students from various Toronto high schools recently took part in the college’s Reach Ahead Opportunities @Seneca.

The project, which provides numerous hands-on workshops in areas such as electronics circuits, communications, control systems, computer programming, networking and computer hardware and software configuration, aims to introduce students to information and communications technology (ICT) at an early age. Technicity 2011, an IT World Canada event which aims to raise the tech profile of Toronto’s ICT community, supports Reach Ahead Opportunities @Seneca.

Technicity event page

“What we want to do is to give these high school students, an opportunity to experiment with and try out some of the things they could learn when they come to this campus,” said Roderick Turner, professor and curriculum coordinator of Seneca’s School of Electronics & Engineering Technology.

“Hopefully, bringing them directly into our labs will give the children an opportunity to find out how exciting this type of work can be for them if they decide to go out and get an ICT career,” said Turner.

It’s very important that the students experience different forms of IT, according to Dennis Hitchmough, regional project director for the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). The ICTC is a not-for-profit organization that focuses on developing a highly educated technology workforce in Canada.

“Some of the activities they do today will be very different from other things they’ve done with computers before,” he said. “And that’s an excellent opportunity for them to go back and chat with their parents and speak of the exciting things they’ve done here.”

Declining tech enrollment

Since the year 2000, enrolment into post secondary technology courses has been declining, according to Sergio Mateus, managing director or Teema Consulting Group Inc, a management and staffing consulting firm.

Meagre rise in Canadian IT salaries despite “talent shortage” reports

“This is a major issue because the demand for information technology professionals is increasing but the ability to supply IT graduates from colleges and universities around the country is decreasing,” he said.

Mateus said an IT talent shortage has adverse effects on the industry and Canada’s ability to compete.

“Our January enrolment this year was about 850, but about 10 years ago that number would have been around 1,500,” said Turner of Seneca. He also said as much as 20 per cent to 30 per cent of tech courses enrolees tend to be international students studying to obtain Canadian certificates. A small percentage of the International students eventually end up working for Canadian businesses while other return to their own countries.

Why learning tech early on is vital

Obtaining tech training as early as possible is important for individuals considering an IT career, according to Denise Woods-Goldstein, director of skills development at CompTIA Inc., a not-for-profit IT professional and tech company trade association.

For instance, she said, CompTIA’s A+ certification is now being offered at the high school level. An A+ certification validates foundational-level knowledge and skills necessary for a career in PC support.

“This certification can be the starting point to a career. It is globally recognized, vendor neutral and almost all of the retail shops selling computers as well as big manufacturers and big resellers are looking for basic A+ knowledge,” Woods-Goldstein said.

Do we need to certify business savvy?

Back at the automation lab, Prof. Lamia Ben Jemma is walking some of the students through the paces of controlling the temperature of a simulated chamber using Visual Basic programming language. The students key in commands to activate HVAC fans and heaters.

Ben Jemma explains that for this particular workshop the task mostly entails “cutting and pasting” pre-chosen commands. “But I have included some errors so that they will get a taste of having to investigate why certain commands did not work.

“The children are very excited. They tell me they never thought they could be capable of doing something like this with a computer,” she said.

“It was pretty fun being able to control the temperature in a room with a computer,” said Tracy, 17, a student at St. Joseph’s Morrow Park High School. In another workshop she also enjoyed learning how to user her computer to control another person’s computer.

Another girl, Azra, said the tour helped her realize she should augment her plans for university studies.

“I plan to take up medicine, but now I’m certain I would like to take computer science as well. I can see that technology has wide applications in medicine,” the 16-year-old said.

Nestor ArellanoNestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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