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Literacy is Key to Hawaii's High Tech Future

By Jeff Bloom

A recent story covered in both our daily papers carried some pretty disparaging news: According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education, a paltry 15% of Hawaii students are conversant enough in English to flourish in the classroom or the workplace. The study indicated that 28 percent of Hawaii students ranked "below basic" in English skills (compared to the national figure of 17 percent).

So what does this mean to our state and the future of technology?

If Hawaii is to develop a thriving technology sector, the majority of new hires must be indigenous—that is Hawaii people. There is no question that we need to produce jobs for home grown, locally-educated boys and girls. Companies will come here gladly if there is an educated workforce.

The problem is that without a firm grounding in English, the lingua franca of the business world, Hawaii students will never be qualified for those future high tech jobs.

I’m not here to point fingers at our local education system nor to condemn the use of Pidgin outside the business world. I only want to clarify that in order to succeed in technology, students must be able to communicate on paper and verbally in standard English.

Whereas Pidgin is no doubt part of our state’s charm, it’s not a language that Senator Inouye would invoke in a congressional debate. English speakers, whether they are native speakers or those who use English as a second language, are able to communicate with one another because they share a common tongue. Pidgin doesn’t make it on Wall Street nor Bishop Street.

Granted, there are those who can eloquently write in Pidgin (such as author Lois-Ann Yamanaka) or speakers (such as Andy Bumatai) who have mastered the idiom. What’s more, these individuals are able to make a good living from their mastery of Pidgin. However, I can assure you that both Ms. Yamanka and Mr. Bumatai are exceedingly articulate in Standard English as well.

Teaching Technology

Of course, speaking articulate Standard English is only half the battle. How then do we go about teaching technology to our brightest kids?

The first thing to do is begin when they are young. By the time kids are out of high school, the battle has long been fought. So we must start by stimulating an interest in technology in grammar school. Getting to our children can be done in a variety of ways but one of the key elements is making sure that our teachers are well-versed in technology. This is a tall order. Teachers are over-burdened and underpaid as it is.

What’s more technology training can be daunting. There’s so much to learn and it’s all changing so rapidly. That said, it’s absolutely essential that at least some of our teachers are up to snuff on the latest software and hardware and, that they have the ability to transmit this knowledge to our children. More resources must be allotted to provide state of the art computer labs as well as training for teachers in computer sciences.

I realize that this is not easy even at the best-funded schools. I can recall one of our student interns from Kamehameha (which has first rate equipment for its students) had simply gone beyond the knowledge base of his teachers. We were able to mentor him because we have the human resources (the trained instructors) to do so. Without this, he would have had nowhere to turn.

Enter the Business Community

Even though it should be our goal to train teachers, I believe another route is to directly involve the business community and the children who show an interest in IT. Kids need the support of computer industry professionals and the community at large. Young people interested in IT as a career need a place to demonstrate their expertise. We need to create a local forum to encourage the development of high tech skills for Hawaii’s youth.

To remedy this a group of IT professionals has created a type of computer science fair called Tech Quest 2000 for Hawaii students through grade 12. Sponsored by The Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association of Hawaii and other local IT pros, this program will present cash scholarships and prizes to award winning contestants. The student competition will be judged on December 7, 1999 at Blaisdell Exhibition Hall.

This one program may not be a silver bullet but it’s a start. We believe that offering scholarships and public recognition to youngsters interested in technology will motivate and foster them to pursue high tech jobs. We have to start stimulating our children at a young age or we’re lost. Hawaii’s future depends on it.

Jeff Bloom is the founder of Computer Training Academy/Network Resource Center, a computer education/consulting firm based in Honolulu. His contact is jeffb@cta.net or 839-1200. Suggestions for column topics are welcomed.

Pacific Business News - Friday November 12, 1999

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