One extra class at the end of his school day isn’t a burden for Luke DuCharme. Actually, it’s fun for him.
The 17-year-old Blythewood High junior is a problem solver who gets a thrill out of computer programming. He’s interested in cybersecurity and already has started looking into post-high school possibilities such as interning with the National Security Agency.
DuCharme is preparing for his future by taking an after-school computer programming class through Richland 2 and Midlands Tech to become a certified Apple App Developer. The goal of the course is to produce business applications that can be published in Apple’s App Store. DuCharme already has learned to design a couple of rudimentary apps.
“Programming’s kind of a hobby for me,” he said. “So it’s a chance to get academic credit for something I like to do and a chance to learn a new language that I wouldn’t normally get.”
By the end of the semester, DuCharme and 11 other students will be among the first in the nation to be trained in the Swift programming language for Apple devices. They’re also trailblazers for the school district’s new Institute of Innovation, which will open in a $41 million facility in 2016 and aim to prepare high schoolers for real-world work scenarios through innovative course programming.
Courses will be offered in five overlapping “strands” of study that cater to workforce needs and projected business trends: advanced information technology, advanced engineering, advanced manufacturing, advanced hospitality and tourism, and supply chain and logistics. And the tie that binds them together, the “super strand,” is business and entrepreneurship.
Several other Midlands distircts, and many statewide, have career and technology centers where students from district high schools have access to advanced and skill-centered courses.
Richland 2’s Institute of Innovation, or R2I2, partners with community businesses and focuses on students’ professional development, encouraging them through the curricula to come up with creative solutions to business problems, director Kevin Alberse said.
“They get that real-world application of what they’re learning in the classroom,” said Maria Owens, the program’s career specialist. The program will “allow them to explore careers to see where they might want to invest their time and opportunities.”
Students will learn both hard and soft skills – from app development and bookkeeping to interviewing and dealing in customer service – that employers look for in potential hires, Owens said.
Courses in the hospitality and tourism strand, for example, could include a specialized pastry-making class or a class on how to run a food-truck business. And students studying in that strand also could be responsible for managing and catering events at the R2I2 campus.
Some courses will be taught by local business professionals, and the district plans to offer extracurricular seminars, field trips and job shadowing opportunities.
“I compare it to when you go shopping,” Alberse said. “You’re usually not going to go into the store and identify a jacket and not try it on or look at some other ones. It’s just like that with a career.
“When we have the opportunity to expose students to different careers, it’s just like trying on that jacket until they find the right one. And it’s critical for their success, particularly before they get to college, so that when they get to college, they at least have a little bit of a game plan.”
Students such as DuCharme already are getting an idea of what their future careers might entail thanks to the Apple programming class. That’s a good step, considering that by 2020 there are expected to be a million more computer science jobs available than there are students to fill the talent pool. In South Carolina, there are more than 4,400 open computing jobs right now, and the field is growing at more than three times the state average.
Other students in the program, such as Alaina Smith, are more focused on accomplishing short-term goals with the skills they’re learning.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Smith, a Westwood High sophomore, joined other students in quietly mulling over an assignment of designing a trivia app on their laptops. Smith’s mother, a programmer herself, had encouraged the 15-year-old to get the experience through the course.
Smith said she hopes to use the skills she’s learning to create an app for an upcoming business competition.
“The hardest part is first starting out,” Smith said. “It’s a challenge, but at the end you’re like, ‘I made that.’”