The Community Corps, a skills-based tech volunteering program within NPower, teamed up with New Dorp High School to give students an opportunity to interact with STEM professionals during a career day at the school. New Dorp High School participates in NYC DoE’s Software Engineering Pilot (SEP) program and seeks to provide students with real-world experiences related to software engineering and exposure to STEM professionals. On April 22, 2015, four volunteers with diverse technology backgrounds spoke to New Dorp’s Software Engineering Pilot students on a future in the software engineering field/ technology field. Two of the volunteers were on site at the school and two participated virtually.

The career day started with a presentation from Chris Demeke, a Google Product Strategist, currently working on Youtube. Chris shared his personal and professional interests, career paths, and accumulated wisdom. He encouraged the students to find opportunities to apply the software engineering concepts they learn in the classroom to real-world situations such as volunteering to build or update a website, or a database application for a local small business or school club. Chris also provided examples of how he honed his coding skills as a high school student by using what he learned in the classroom to find creative solutions to small problems he encountered on his part-time job in his high school’s computer lab. The students were enthralled to speak with an IT professional currently working at Google and asked many questions about his typical work day, Google’s culture, challenges he encounters at work, and programming languages used to build various Google applications. Chris advised the students to, focus on their homework, supplement their classroom learning with independent learning activities, and to teach others what they have learned because he found that teaching others reinforced his own knowledge. In response to a student’s query as to how he landed a job at Google, Chris advised all the students to obtain a college degree as that is a prerequisite for employment with well-established tech companies like Google. At the end of the presentation, the students received a delightful surprise when Chris gifted each of them with a pair of Google sunglasses.

The second guest speaker, Dr. Josephine Kolajo-Garcon currently works as a Senior Informaticist at Sidra Medical and Research Center located in Qatar (Middle East) and participated virtually via Skype.  Josephine explained that she transitioned from her role as a clinical pharmacist to health information technology because she recognized and appreciated the important role of technology in improving quality and safety in healthcare. She spoke specifically about her role as an informaticist in the design of integrated electronic medical record (EMR) systems that incorporate robotics, bar code scanners, and automated dispensing cabinets to improve security, reliability, and responsiveness to the needs of the healthcare team, and decrease in medication errors. The students asked questions about Qatar and Josephine used her computer’s webcam to give the students a view of downtown Doha, the capital city of Qatar. Before giving the students a virtual tour, Josephine cautioned that the view would be blurred because of a recent sandstorm. The students were very intrigued to see sand plastered over all the buildings and asked if a sandstorm was similar to a snowstorm. Two of the students who have a Middle Eastern background explained to the other students the difference between a sandstorm and a snowstorm.

Dr. Tara Stewart was the third guest speaker and is a neuroscientist who currently works at Sidra Medical and Research Center. Tara also participated virtually from Florida where she is currently caring for a sick relative. She started out with an artistic display of the subjects that she graduated with in high school and asked the students to guess what important subjects were missing on her senior year transcript. After a playful exchange, the students correctly guessed that she was missing Math and
Computer Science.  Tara explained the reason for the missing subjects on her transcript, and described her attendance at summer school to fill the gap. She told the students that she was born deaf, which was not diagnosed until elementary school. However, her hearing was restored after a series of surgeries. She explained that her hearing impairment resulted in early academic difficulties and she always struggled with Math and Physics. However, she worked hard at them until she did well. Tara stated that she still struggles with Math and Physics, but she uses them every day in her work. She subsequently spoke about her “accidental” pathway to her career as a neuroscientist and her work as a researcher related to the neurophysiology of small neural circuits, which she studied using lobsters. Tara joked that she would go fishing for lobsters to study their brains and then eat the meat. She also spoke about using her coding skills to write programs to implement algorithms that solve complex problems related to neurological intraoperative monitoring of children undergoing surgery for epileptic seizures. She conveyed complex biomedical concepts using simple language to the students who were very fascinated and asked several questions. One student asked Tara to describe how his thoughts are transmitted. Tara’s parting advice to the students was that school is not only about grades and tests as they will use most of what they have learned in their work. Additionally, she encouraged them to really do all they can to learn programming and Math as those skills will make them superstars in any discipline.

Dr. Constance Mussa, the fourth guest speaker is currently a Volunteer Coordinator at The Community Corps at NPower under the auspices of the NYC Civic Corps. Constance described her professional journey from a respiratory therapist and manager to teaching undergraduate computer science and information systems courses at Brooklyn College after obtaining a Master’s degree in Computer Science and a PhD in Information Systems. Constance explained to the students that her interest in technology resulted from the lack of information regarding healthcare outcomes related to specific therapeutic interventions. She talked about applying the computer science concepts she learned to build a database application for her department in a previous job. She also spoke about her involvement in the design and implementation of electronic medical record systems in previous roles as a respiratory care manager at two different academic medical centers. Additionally, she talked about the relationship between the various concepts the students are learning in the classroom to software engineering. She pointed out that the collaborative, analytical, and critical thinking skills acquired from Math, the humanities and the natural and social sciences are needed to be successful as a software engineer. She emphasized the difference between being a programmer and a software engineer and the skillsets required for a software engineer. Constance told the students that the healthcare field is still struggling with finding innovative solutions related to management and processing of information and they could be the technology professionals that solve these challenges. She emphasized the importance of turning challenges/obstacles into opportunities rather than giving up, and advised the students not to stay in their “comfort zones,” but to embrace new opportunities whenever possible.

Laurence Chertoff