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Dec. 17, 2009

High tech for success

by Larisa Antonisse, Page Editor
As computers have become an integral part of modern life, so have computer troubles. When trying to meet a deadline or praying to finish work during the wee hours of the morning to get some sleep, computer malfunctions can produce screams of frustration. Unfortunately, banging on the side of the computer or repeatedly clicking the "cancel" button just doesnít do the trick. Students in Blairís Cisco Academy, however, have learned to resolve computer problems without these angry outbursts.

The Cisco Academy is an information technology education program that teaches students how to design, build, troubleshoot and secure computer networks, which gives them increased access to career and economic opportunities. According to Sandra Navidi, supervisor of the MCPS Division of Career and Technology Education, although Blair opened an unofficial "networking program" in 1999, the Cisco program wasnít implemented in MCPS until the 2005-2006 school year. Blair is now one of 10 Cisco Academy schools in the county, with 63 students currently enrolled. Blairís program offers two different classes: Information Technology (IT) Essentials and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) Discovery. According to Blair Cisco instructor Nipun Manda, the IT Essentials track teaches basic and advanced computer concepts involving hardware which includes physical computer devices, and software which encompasses the codes and instructions that operate computers. Additionally, the CCNA Discovery class provides instruction in general networking theory, practical experience and software skills development. Cisco students learn the skills needed to resolve many computer problems, and become certified in college level material creating career opportunities for the future.

Manda, who teaches every Cisco class at Blair, describes how the exclusive design of the Cisco program offers students the chance to develop a practical understanding of computers; a skill set that is hard to come by in many schools. "This is a college curriculum course in a 21st century classroom. Students build real computers, not prototypes, and have the experience of hands-on labs," he says. According to Robert Hopkins, Blair media supervisor and technology teacher, the program has transformed dramatically since its launch, causing a huge increase in enrollment. Hopkins partially attributes this to the fact that over the years the Blair Cisco Academy has made its curriculum more diverse in order to reach all students. "People who like software can now work on software and people who like hardware can now work on hardware," he says.

Not everyoneís a whiz

Although beginner skill levels in Cisco vary widely, many of the more advanced students have prior experience with computers. Sophomore Stephan Kostreski, now in his first year of the Cisco program, had his first experience fixing computer problems in sixth grade when he decided to manually open his first computer because he was annoyed with its slow pace. "I took off all the dust and thought I made it better," he says. That day, when he first discovered his knack for computers, began what would soon guide Kostreskiís path in high school, college and afterward.

But since the only requirement for taking a Cisco course at Blair is having completed a basic technology class, such as Blairís "Exploring Technological Concepts" class, no prior computer background is necessary. Will Smith, a junior who is currently one of the most experienced Cisco students in the school, discovered his computer passion in high school after beginning Cisco classes. "I saw the class and thought it sounded cool," says Smith, adding that he was motivated to begin the class to learn how to fix all his infuriating computer problems. Similarly, junior Mikiyas Yeneneh also didnít really think about getting involved in computer networking until his friends told him about the Cisco program. Their comments piqued his interest. "I didnít know much about computers before, but I had an interest to learn more," says Yeneneh. He began Cisco this year in the IT Essentials course, and although he is still unsure about whether he wants to pursue a future in computers, he is learning basic skills that will help him throughout his life.

In it for the future

For those students who know they want to have a future in computers, Cisco offers examinations, giving students the chance to receive college-level credits that open the doors to numerous job opportunities. The IT Essentials course prepares students for the A+ Certification in hardware repair, and the CCNA Discovery courses prepare students for certification in networking. There are also many other classes available, ranging from basic to more advanced levels, at other academies in the area, including Montgomery College. Many Cisco students get degrees in areas such as network engineering in college, and then go on to become professional IT Specialists or Network Administrators, says Manda. According to Navidi, it is very difficult to attain any kind of computer networking job without these certifications. She says that the only chance of getting a job like this without industry certification would probably be in an entry-level position where a company would require the employee to attain certification during a probation period.

Most advanced Cisco students have set their sights higher than these entry-level jobs, though. Smith, like many Cisco students, says that he hopes to get a job in network management in the future after working toward a higher level college degree in networking. According to Manda, computer networking jobs are "everywhere" now due to the continuous development of new technology. Even non-computer related workplaces such as government agencies and hospitals are now looking for employees with a foundation in technology. Computer networking jobs are one of the few jobs with a predicted salary increase over the next few years, despite the terrible economy. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report on computer specialist professions states that, "Employment of network and computer systems administrators is expected to increase by 27 percent from 2006 to 2016, which is much faster than the average for all occupations." In addition, the salaries for computer support specialists and systems administrators are expected to increase by a marked 18 percent over this time period.

Professional before college

Eager to get involved in this lucrative profession, some Cisco students have already jump-started their computer careers. Navidi explains that students like Kostreski often use Cisco skills for jobs later in life, even if they do not make a career out of it. "[These jobs] pay much higher wages than cashiering, waiting tables or flipping burgers," she says.

Kostreski began his own business two years ago where he helps people with systems like Web sites and Xbox 360. Companies or individuals will email him asking him to provide server computers or other parts for their Web sites and other programs. Kostreski says he learned the skills necessary to run this business using YouTube tutorials, and started out with extremely cheap rates to attract customers. As the business developed a stronger reputation, he was able to increase his prices. Kostreski attributes his involvement in the Cisco program largely to his desire to increase his knowledge of computer networking so that he can improve his business.

The fast paced growth of technology is excellent for young students looking to get involved in the computer industry, where much help is needed to maintain these complex systems. But as the systems change, so must computer education programs like Cisco. The future of Cisco will require new classes, new skills, and new resources. But for now, the future looks bright for students who have put in the effort and dedication necessary to become skilled in the difficult subject of computers.



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