Students prepare for a networked future

Many high school students spend their days daydreaming of the years ahead, when their unpaid, forced labour in educational institutions is replaced by jobs with flexible hours (like a starting time of noon) and consistently high paycheques.

And though elders know the daydream to be just that, some high school students in Canada are looking at a potentially rosy future, thanks to a rigorous networking course being provided across the country by Cisco Systems.

The Cisco Systems Networking Academy (CSNA), which the company estimates will be in 3,900 schools in 63 countries by the end of the year, was launched in Canadian high schools two years ago. And the four semester program is beginning to see its first graduating students prepare themselves for post-secondary education.

Looking at someone like secondary school student Komal Rahim, who at 17-years-old is already working in the engineering lab at Bell Nexxia, it is tempting to call the academies an unqualified success. And it has been for the most part, said Bob Nixon, the Toronto District School Board’s regional manager for the CSNA, except for a few minor bumps in the first year. Specifically, the difficulty in getting companies to take a chance and give a high school student an internship.

“I find it ironic, because here’s an industry driven by youth, yet hesitant to take these kids,” said Nixon, a special education teacher who now teaches the networking course at George Harvey Collegiate in Toronto.

His colleague at Marc Garneau Collegiate, also in Toronto, Dan Hawkins, said that initial hestitance has been replaced with an ethusiastic embrace, mostly because of the capabilities of the first co-op students.

“The kids that go out really make or break a co-op for us,” Hawkins said, noting industry leaders like Bell Nexxia, Fluke Engineering (who also supply network test tools for 50 academies in Canada) Antsys Network Communications, even the City of Toronto, have all employed interns in the past. All of the feedback has been positive, he added, mostly because companies are so easily surprised at what the students already know.

“I think it takes them time to understand we know what to do,” said Rahim, who works on WAN operations in Bell’s $3 million lab.

Nixon said the teachers are not as easily impressed, as expectations in the school boards run high for students of the increasingly elite program.

“Some kids will come in, think they’re going to mess with computers, surf all day. They quickly find out that’s not going to happen,” Nixon related.

“The curriculum is quite rigorous. By the time students finish they should have no problem passing the CCNA,” he said, referrring to Cisco’s certification of Network Associates, the company’s first level in a three stage program. “Employers don’t believe this is happening, because this usually goes on in third or fourth year university.”

The academy is strikingly similar to a university course in that students are taught without being coddled, said Nixon. They are expected to learn to take notes, and keep on top of the program for themselves.

The learning curve is also steep, he said. In the first semester, students are introduced to all seven layers of the OSI model, and information associated with each layer. They also learn basic networking skills. The second semester is more hands on, with students learning how to configure routers, program switches, and important protocols. The third semester is more of the same, with adavanced router configuration, switching, and LAN design thrown into the mix. By the fourth semester, students are expected to be able to theoretically design a WAN or LAN for a district school board. The final exam tests the students’ ability to handle adversity.

“Once they get their network connected we tear it down,” Nixon chuckled. “Then they have to troubleshoot it.”

Most have no trouble, especially if they’ve already managed to make it to the fourth semester, Nixon said. About 75 per cent stick with the program, and the ones who leave, leave early, added Hawkins.

He added students in the program get great on-the-job training by maintaining the school’s networks. At Marc Garneau, that includes three NT servers, a remote access server, and 350 work stations.

And, out at their internships, students are learning the most important lesson of all: work doesn’t stop when a bell rings.

“You can’t just say, ‘OK my time’s up, I’m going home,'” said Admir Khimani, 18. “You’ve got a job to do, and you have to finish it even if you have to stay a couple extra hours after work. It’s up to you and only you to get the job done.”