Award Winning Program Teaches Students Valuable STEM Skills While Also Serving the IT Needs of the School

Louis Zulli was part of the team who created a unique computer and technology learning program for high school students which began in 1990—and a quarter of a century later, he’s still pushing hard for alternatives in teaching that can help kids succeed in an ever more complex and demanding world.

Zulli is the IT Instructor and Network Administrator for the Center for Advanced Technologies (CAT) program at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, Florida, which is part of the Pinellas County Schools district. The CAT program has about 400 of the 1,300 students at the school, and it’s been winning awards for years, including Emmys for multimedia productions and multiple appearances on Newsweek magazine’s annual list of the top high schools in the nation.

The route that led to CAT began back in 1990, when Zulli, as part of a team, helped design a magnet program that took a disciplined, integrated approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, and math.

“We designed a STEM school before STEM became a buzzword,” Zulli says. “In my program, we created curricula from scratch, and modified them when it made sense. With computer technology, our initial focus was on tackling the problems that arose with the early IT systems, and helping teachers with their technology needs. But as those issues got easier to manage, the computer science curriculum morphed into what it is today.”

Zulli serves as a mentor to juniors and seniors who are running the school’s Windows IT infrastructure, designing and operating its SharePoint-based website, using cloud technologies like Office 365, and delving deep enough into programming languages to attract the attention of colleges and major corporations—including Microsoft.

The school’s heavy focus on Microsoft technologies is not an accident. Zulli says it reflects an operating philosophy about what’s best for students to be learning now—and what they’ll be using in college and the workplace.

“In the early 2000’s we heard presentations from technology vendors, including Apple and Microsoft,” Zulli says. “Apple makes great devices for the individual. But from an IT and productivity perspective, when you have to log into networked systems and have some way to control resources, Microsoft is simply the best choice.”

Students in the CAT program each have their own Windows-based PCs, which are predominantly Dell Venue 11 tablets running Windows 8.1, the Office 365 applications, and with a stylus for making handwritten notes.

The CAT program’s emphasis on technology goes way beyond personal devices, however. The school began developing on SharePoint Server in 2003, and CAT students quickly began learning the fundamentals of website design and management; today the school’s site operates off of SharePoint Online, and their efforts have earned the program and students recognition. Awards include: The 2014 Intranet Innovations Platinum Award where the team beat out some international Fortune 500 companies. The program has also received significant recognition from the National Center for Women & Informational Technology Aspirations in Computing and since 2011 the program has had two National award winners, four National runners-up, 12 regional winners and in 2014 Zulli was named one of their Outstanding Educators.

The school also offers rigorous classes for programming, including languages such as C#, Java, Jscript, and HTML5. Students who take CAT computer classes can obtain industry certifications for web development, HTML coding, Microsoft Certified Professional, and other industry recognized credentials.

The CAT program attracts a lot of outside attention and visitors. Zulli says he hopes more schools will realize the importance of building rigorous computer technology programs using cloud technologies like Office 365, SharePoint, and powerful personal devices that kids can use regardless of time or location.

“We’re simply not doing nearly enough in computer science. Students need to be trained in not only using but also building with software, starting at a very early age,” he says. “Too many schools are not thinking like students are thinking today. Faculty and administrators are still teaching and doing things based on the 19th Century classroom and methods.”

“When schools start adopting the powerful technologies like we’re using in the CAT program, students will be a lot better prepared to step out into the world,” Zulli proudly shares. His students have gone on to pursue a variety of STEM related careers and some even as software engineers working for Microsoft.

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