As Virginia’s public schools seek to prepare students for high-paying jobs in technology industries, some students aren’t waiting to graduate to get their first experiences in the field.
This summer, two friends and classmates at Charlottesville High School wrote code for software companies on opposite sides of the Downtown Mall.
James Nachbar worked at Astraea, a new startup developing a machine-learning engine for image data from Earth-observing satellites. Machine learning allows Astrea’s software to find patterns and relevant information in huge sets of images with minimal human intervention.
“This summer I learned a lot more about computer engineering as a field,” Nachbar said. “Going forward, I can apply what I learned to different programming languages and projects.”
Nachbar helped build a a program that charts the wavelength and intensity of light in digital images. Nachbar said the program can be used as a diagnostic tool to troubleshoot bugs in Astraea’s machine-learning algorithms.
Nachbar said he would have liked to delve deeper into machine-learning itself during his internship.
“I didn’t have the background you need to do that right away,” he said. “But machine learning is something I want to pursue for the rest of high school, and maybe for the rest of my life.”
Jonah Weissman worked at ChartIQ, a larger company that sells financial charting and visualization tools to financial institutions, news outlets, trading platforms and stock brokerages.
Weissman used publicly available code from Slack, a popular app for team communication, to create an online chat program that allows users to open multiple windows and “snap” them onto the sides of a computer screen.
“This summer I’ve realized that I have what it takes to contribute something to the economy right now,” Weissman said. “It might not super high-stakes stuff, but it helps.”
Nachbar and Weissman both emphasized the importance of asking questions and seeking help when they struggled with their projects.
Simeon Fitch, Astraea’s vice president of research and development, said overcoming fears of embarrassment is a challenge that many high schoolers face during a software development internship.
“In software development, you are constantly making mistakes and taking chances,” Fitch said. “There is excitement in not knowing the answer right off the bat.”
This year, Nachbar and Weissman will serve as co-presidents of Charlottesville High Schoool’s Best All-around Club of Nerds (BACON). Students in the club work on science projects, compete in science competitions, and travel to scientific institutions across the world.
Nachbar and Weissman also have taken engineering classes together in the CHS Sigma Lab. “It’s a little uncanny how much working at Astraea reminds me of working in small groups for engineering projects at CHS,” said Nachbar.
Matt Shields, a physics and engineering teacher who advises BACON, said he has intentionally tried to foster a startup-like atmosphere within the club. He said students run BACON like a small company, managing its expenses, fundraising and marketing.
“For some of our students, their experiences in the Sigma Lab might give them a leg up on their applications to MIT. For others, the lab can help them gain technical skills that might help them get a job after high school,” Shields said.
“Not all of the technology firms in town need workers with Ph.D.’s in microbiology. They also need someone to run their centrifuges and other machinery,” he said.
The Virginia Department of Education is currently finalizing its “Profile of a Virginia Graduate,” which will outline new graduation requirements for students graduating in 2022 and beyond. The new requirements will promote student internships, externships, and credentialing.
Shields said public schools will play an important role in making access to work experiences in technology fields as equitable as possible for students. He said opening enrollment in engineering courses to all students at CHS, regardless of their prior academic performance, is one way his school contributes to this effort.
“I let in anyone that wants to come through the door, and I try to help them be successful here,” he said.
Weissman said BACON could potentially help students who lack personal connections to Charlottesville’s technology sector find similar opportunities; both Nachbar and Weissman said that friends and family members had helped them find opportunities for summer internships.
However, Weissman acknowledged that there was still work to be done on this front.
“BACON is a great environment for meeting people with a similar interest in science, technology and engineering,” Weissman said. “What’s tragic is that group of students with similar interests is not particularly diverse right now. We are working hard to make the club as open and accessible as possible.”
Xander Herrick, a 2016 graduate of Albemarle High School, said internships he completed during high school have put him on a fast track towards career in software development.
Herrick interned at the Center for Open Science in the summers after his sophomore and junior years of high school. After focusing on customer service issues in his first internship at COS, Herrick devoted most of his second internship to writing a program that automatically generates mailing lists for groups using the organization’s Open Science Framework.
Now a Computer Science major at George Mason University, Herrick returned to Charlottesville this summer for an internship at RoomKey, an online platform for booking hotel rooms that is owned by six major global hotel chains.
“It’s kind of crazy how different this internship was for me, compared to my first internship when I was in high school,” Herrick said. “Because of the experience I had at COS, I came into this job a lot more prepared.”
“You don’t have to do an internship to get coding experience… but internships provide a framework that is the closest thing to having real job,” Herrick said. “If you have the opportunity to do real work, and have the interest to go through with it, it will absolutely pay off.”
Tracey Greene, executive director of the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council, said CBIC was exploring ways to host a recruiting event for summer internships during its annual “Tech Tour” for local students. This year’s tour takes place on Oct. 10.