Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 27, 2014

From support squad to innovators

Tech-savvy students writing program for new high school lab

By Dustin Luca
dluca@andovertownsman.com

---- — Andover High School teachers with technology woes worry not. Your students are here to help.

A student-run help desk has been one of the successes of the high school’s new Innovation Lab that was launched this school year.

An alternative to study hall for students with technological prowess, the lab was created on the heels of the district dedicating substantial funds to the purchase of new computers for staff, Daniel Downs, school technology integration specialist, said.

“We got all these new MacBooks for the teachers, and we knew there was going to be a need for supporting the teachers with the new technology,” Downs said.

But the help desk isn’t just about students being at the faculty’s beck and call to provide tech support.

The new course offering includes an educational component built around a silicon-charged core, with each student developing and completing semester-long projects, Downs said.

Viabhav Patel, 16, has spent his time outside tech calls using one of his favorite video games from home to demonstrate how digital worlds can make tangible impacts in the real world.

It wasn’t what he originally expected when he signed up for the class.

“When I first heard of the class, I thought it was going to be me helping out everybody else with what they don’t know about computers,” Patel said.

As the school year moved forward and tech support calls waned, he dove into one of his passions at home — the video game Minecraft — and began exploring its capacity to improve lives beyond the digital world.

“Minecraft has inspired people to learn about animations, coding, music and even starting a business,” he wrote on a blog post for the Innovation Lab. “Minecraft is not just a game, but a huge learning tool for anyone with the passion to further their goals.”

Fellow Innovation Lab member Peter Banta, a 17-year-old junior, also focused on an aspect of game development.

Using the three-dimensional modeling standby Maya 3D, Banta crafted spaceships from pictures he found on the Internet for the upcoming space trading and combat simulator video game Star Citizen.

Banta said the project gave him “early experience in the field, so you’ll know, if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll have an idea how to go forward,” he said. “I’m working with something that’s going to be used in the field.”

As a final assignment, each student must create a final presentation for the class using Google Hangout — a collaboration medium akin to video conferencing. Downs likened the presentation to a review board in the tech industry.

“The presentation is really student-driven,” he said. “We have other students in on the final presentation, and they have to ask questions.”

Initially, only three students signed up for the Innovation Lab during its first semester in existence, Downs said. But as that trio started making the rounds of classrooms to provide technological troubleshooting for the staff, word spread and interest grew sharply, he said. Now, 15 students are enrolled.

Patel said with the larger group, the students are looking at potentially introducing a ticket system to better manage tech support requests during peak times.

Eli Gukovsky, 16, meanwhile, hopes to see the lab expanding out of its current location, which is essentially a closet at the back of the high school library. The room is home to a few computers, maybe the occasional motherboard and some furniture.

“I would think, eventually, we’re getting so many kids, we might get a better room,” Gukovsky said.

Downs said one option for the Innovation Lab might be to have a dedicated help desk in the library itself.

“There are a lot of groups that come down and use laptops, and they can use (the help desk) to ask questions,” he said.

Three journalism students who recently worked to promote the Innovation Lab as part of a class assignment believe there could be even broader implications for the new program should it expand.

“If you get students interested in this, they could develop a mobile app for Andover High,” Hugh Smith, one of the journalism students, said. “This could be Andover High’s technology hub.”

Mae Hunt, another journalism student, said she believes students as well as teachers would benefit by the tech space and services if they knew what was available.

“They don’t know this is here and don’t know they have an opportunity,” she said. “If it’s anything that can help them make the class time more efficient, they’d jump on the opportunity.”