P-TECH students around the IBM sign

When José Vera was in middle school in Longmont, he learned about a way to earn a two-year college degree while simultaneously completing his high school diploma.

“Our middle school guidance counselor brought up the P-TECH program at Skyline [High School], where I was going to attend, and it sounded pretty exciting to me to be able to get college exposure while in high school,” says José. He was also drawn to the technology elements of the program.

P-TECH students at Skyline complete college-level coursework that begins in ninth grade. If they stick with it, they’ll graduate with both a high school diploma and an Associate of Applied Science degree in computer information systems from FRCC—all at no cost to the student.

One of the many appealing aspects of the program is that every student gets to do a paid internship the summer before their senior year. (Unless that summer happened to fall during the height of the 2020 COVID pandemic. For those students—who graduated in May—the internships are happening now, a year later than planned. More on those in a minute.)

But first, a little background on what, exactly, P-TECH is…

A Three-Way Partnership for High School Students

P-TECH stands for Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools. The program was launched by IBM in 2011 as a way to provide high school students from underserved backgrounds with the academic, technical and professional skills and credentials they need for competitive STEM jobs.

Each P-TECH is a partnership between a school district, a community college and one (or more) high-growth industry employers. In this case, St. Vrain Valley School District has partnered with FRCC and IBM to create the program at Skyline.

The now worldwide P-TECH school network enables students, particularly from underserved communities, to earn both a high school diploma and a no-cost associate degree in a STEM field in four to six years. Upon completion, graduates receive “first-in-line” consideration for jobs with P-TECH-affiliated industry partners.

The end result? Good job opportunities for students and a more highly-skilled workforce for the businesses.

Internships Help Students Prepare for Careers

These rising seniors (and recent graduates) are spending their summer break working full days Monday through Thursday at IBM in Boulder. On Fridays they take a related class with an FRCC professor to discuss and help synthesize what they’re learning on the job.

“The internships really support our students’ transition into the workplace,” said Beth Wheeler, director of high school programs for FRCC’s Boulder County Campus. “At this point in the program, they’ve been working on professional skills for three years. Over the summer, they’re focused on figuring out how to apply what they’ve learned in their classes to the workplace.”

P-TECH students come out of the experience better prepared than ever to join the working world.

Solving Real Problems Using Technology

José graduated from high school in May—and because the pandemic pushed his internship back a year from summer 2020, he’s now completing his internship with IBM. He’s working with the company’s Global Business Services (GBS) division. His team includes other students from Skyline High School—as well as kids from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Dallas, Texas.

In Health Care

Together, they’re working to develop a solution to help healthcare clients address an industry issue that has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We found that doctors spend a lot of their time putting information into their electronic health records system, when they could be working with patients,” José says.

The students’ solution: create an application that would transcribe doctors’ spoken patient information into data that would automatically upload to a secure patient database. The prototype app is called Medical Care Cloud.

In Energy and Utilities

Joselin Nuñez is another P-TECH student from Skyline High School who’s interning with IBM this summer. She’ll start her senior year this fall. She and her intern colleagues are working to create a solution for energy and utilities clients to prepare them for the post-COVID world.

With more people than ever before working from home, Joselin’s team identified a crucial theme in the industry—the unpredictability of energy consumption in the wake of COVID-19. Their solution: an app that can aggregate and predict a person’s utility bill based on historical, weather and external data.  

“I like being able to contribute to something like this,” she says. “And I’ve been really happy to get a free college education through P-TECH.”

A Little Friendly Competition

José’s healthcare-focused team and Joselin’s energy and utilities group are just two of the 16 P-TECH intern teams developing solutions to COVID-exacerbated challenges for IBM. (Other industry-focused groups include consumer products; aerospace and defense; media and entertainment; and banking and financial markets.)

Each team got to present its work to a panel of executives and industry experts—who chose José’s team as the winner of the competition for the Global Business Services unit. He and his teammates will now get to proceed to an IBM-wide intern competition with other business units.

Interns Put Their Knowledge to Work

Ulysses Estrada, a senior consultant in enterprise strategy at IBM, is the team lead for both Joselin’s and José’s groups. He says the benefit of the internship is the real-world application of concepts learned in the P-TECH curriculum.

“Those big-picture concepts are abstract and not always easy to understand for high school students, but this internship gives students the chance to apply what they learn in an actual job setting,” he says.

Learning by Doing

“My students have learned about design thinking—a user-driven approach to designing solutions,” Ulysses adds. “They’re also learning agile—a set of practices to encourage iterative development.”

“Now they’re putting both design thinking and agile into practice to design a solution for their respective industries. Not only that, these students are also practicing their professionalism by drafting emails, sending meeting invites and collaborating in teams—all essential skills they’ll need in their careers or if they go on to complete four-year degrees.”

On Fridays the students build on their internship experience by getting together via video—in real time—to talk about the concepts they’re learning at work. They’ve even gotten to hear from IBM guest speakers on topics like cybersecurity, data analytics/science, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Students get to research subtopics within those subjects, and work together to create and give team presentations for their classmates.

A New Industry Supporter

More than 90 Skyline P-TECH students are interning with IBM this summer—which is almost twice as many as usual because COVID postponed last year’s internships.

The P-TECH program is also offering a new internship option for 2021. Fanatics, an online retailer of sportswear and sports equipment, has hired two interns from Skyline High School to spend the summer at the company’s Boulder office.

Senior Calvin Tran is one of the Fanatics interns. “I interact with the company’s [application programming interface] to create a tool for [web] developers, and I’m learning Java script, API architecture and how to work with different layers,” he says.

“The entire P-TECH program has been a great experience, especially for first-generation college students like myself.”

“I have dreamed of going to an Ivy League school my whole life and I think P-TECH has opened up that possibility to me.”

One day, Calvin says he’d like to become a hardware engineer or a software engineer. His dream college? Either Princeton or Yale.

Filling a Workforce Skills Gap

There’s currently a STEM skills gap in the US that leaves many important jobs unfilled, which is one of the reasons that businesses get involved in P-TECH programs. Companies can help build their own pipeline of skilled workers by partnering to provide this type of training.

Of course the students reap great benefits from participating as well. Because they gain actual workplace experience, P-TECH helps them to be more competitive when they become job candidates.

A Path to Good Jobs

P-TECH graduates are first in line for consideration for jobs with their school’s industry partners. José says he plans to seize that opportunity. When his internship program concludes later this summer, he’ll apply for an apprenticeship with IBM.

“IBM is a great company that really cares about its employees,” he says. “I want to gain some experience with an organization like this that makes a difference.”

In the longer term, José says he could see himself going into technology for a career, or pursuing further college education. “I would definitely take more classes at FRCC or elsewhere, and technology has always been a strength and an interest. I think it might be a good path for me.”

Transforming Students’ Lives

This is Ulysses’ first time supervising P-TECH students for his job at IBM—but it won’t be his last. “As a first-generation student myself, this has been a great experience for me to work with these students,” he says. “It’s been rewarding to watch both José and Joselin step into new situations and grow throughout the internship to become more confident in their ability to share ideas, contribute and flourish.”

“P-TECH is a transformative program,” Ulysses adds.

“Whether students go on to work in technology or simply gain a foundational understanding of technology, the P-TECH internship experience equips students with real-life skills applicable to any professional setting. By providing students an early exposure to the workforce, the internship can create change in the lives of students who participate in it.”

More Than Just Tech Skills

There’s a lot more to P-TECH programs than simply classes and an internship. For example, every student gets assigned a mentor to meet with periodically who can help provide guidance along the way.

And during their internships, students don’t just learn about computers and technology. They learn communication skills, project management, how to meet deadlines consistently and how to prioritize effectively. Some of the other soft skills they pick up during the program include collaboration and teamwork, resolving conflicts and using analytical and critical thinking to overcome obstacles. As Ulysses points out, these are all key competencies for jobs in almost any field.

P-TECH is Growing

Skyline High School’s program with FRCC and IBM—dubbed Falcon Tech—has been in existence since 2016. It’s just one of five P-TECH programs (either existing or coming soon) that FRCC helps to operate.

This fall St. Vrain schools are set to open a new cybersecurity P-TECH at Silver Creek High School in coordination with FRCC and industry partners Cisco, Comcast, PEAK Resources and Seagate Technologies.

FRCC’s other P-TECH programs are housed at:

  • Northglenn High School STEM (computer information systems pathway)—established in 2016
  • Poudre High School (manufacturing pathway)—coming this fall!
  • Adams City High School (architectural/building science pathway)—coming fall 2022!

And there are many other P-TECH schools in Colorado with a variety of different career pathways, such as:

  • Jefferson High School in Greeley (construction technology pathway)
  • Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver (business pathway)
  • Frederick High School (biochemistry pathway)
  • Eagle Valley High School (environmental studies/sustainability science pathway)

The P-TECH model continues to grow in popularity. The network has now expanded to more than 260 schools in 11 US states and 28 countries. More than 600 business partners support participating schools with education, mentoring and paid internships.

Everybody Wins

FRCC and other colleges are expanding their P-TECH offerings because it’s a clear win-win-win for students, schools and area businesses. Expect to see even more of this learning model in the coming years.

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