Wasatch Institute high school wants to start training programmers in 9th grade

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By Joey Ferguson

SALT LAKE CITY — Wasatch Institute of Technology, a new charter school that focuses on computer sciences, wants to prepare young programmers for careers and higher education with new approaches to teaching based on agile software development practices.

The school will serve students grades 9 to 12 and will initially admit 320 students who will start in August of 2014.

“The goal is to have students be career ready by the time they graduate,” said David Moss, founder of Wasatch Institute. “What we hope is they will be bored by the time they get to college.”

Students will fall under one of two main programs at the school: Network/Systems Engineering and Software Engineering.

Learning activities, which include a group projects mixture of group projects and lectures, will work in three-week sprints rather than tradition semesters or trimesters. The non-traditional learning model helps students be better acquainted with agile software development practices.

There is a lack of adequate classes for students who want to learn more about computer sciences, Moss said, who was formerly the chair of the computer science department at Salt Lake Community College, where he worked for about eight years.

“We know the kids are out there,” Moss, a former developer for Utah tech company BidSync, said.

Wasatch Institute did a study on classes offered by high schools in the state involving networking and programming. The company found that 6 percent of students in the state actually took classes in those categories, yet a majority of schools don’t offer classes. That means more than 36,000 could be interested in a career in computer sciences.

“You have these kids who have that interest, but they have no opportunity to do it unless they take advantage of it themselves by learning online,” Moss said. “How much better would it be where that is what they can do?”

It took some time before Wasatch Institute made it past the state charter school board. Approval from the board is required to become a charter school.

The state’s board was concerned that the school wouldn’t be covering core topics like english and math, Moss said. Because of the school’s unorthodox approach to learning, it took some convincing, he said.

“They were afraid it would be a bunch of computer geeks all in a dark room playing games the whole time,” Moss said.

During the school’s three-week sprints, topics like English, Art, Science and History will be integrated into their learning process.

“The real point is we want there to be lots of flexibility,” Moss said. “Simply because all the students have to do is show a mastery of those objectives. There’s lots of different ways to get to those objectives. Yet, far too often we limit ourselves to just one: whatever the book says.”

Moss says the school needs close to 320 students to break even. Since the school opened enrollment in the beginning of February, more than 50 students have enrolled.

“The hardest part is getting the word out,” Moss said. “As a completely unknown entity, how do you find those people and communicate what you’re about?”

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