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Computer skills click at Whiteside Area Career Center

Students learn variety of skills, earn dual credits at Sauk

STERLING – If it weren’t for compatibility issues because of a recent Windows 10 upgrade, Erie High School junior Austin Sullivan would have happily shown off the virtual machine he built to hack a system’s security.

That nicely sums up the crux of computer technology at Whiteside Area Career Center. Technology is constantly changing, and at the core of the syllabus is ethics.

Sullivan, 17, started his first year at WACC already boasting a wealth of knowledge, a not uncommon challenge for ninth-year instructor Dana Fellows.

“This goes for most of our programs at WACC: It’s not like history or math, where they’ve been doing it before they get here,” Fellows said Tuesday afternoon. “Some kids are very tech-savvy – sometimes they scare me – but typically, they come in and they don’t know a lot about tech. It’s like the way a baby learns: a lot in a couple of years.”

Many of the students – including Sullivan – are interested in being network administrators or network security analysts, and the key to beating the hacker is to be a bit faster, a bit sharper than the hacker. That’s why Sullivan has been tinkering with Kali Linux, a system used for penetration testing.

“To test security, companies can basically hack themselves in order to make sure they’re safe,” he said.

On the other side of the room were seniors Matthew Johnson, 18, of Newman Central Catholic High School, and James Blackburn, 17, of Amboy High. The second-year students also were on the other end of the spectrum from Sullivan in terms of knowledge when they arrived in fall of 2014.

They’ve since learned about hardware – yes, they can disassemble and reassemble computers – networking, Java programming, security, and more. They’ve still got six more Linux chapters to tackle the rest of the semester.

“You can go through a chapter in like a week, maybe 2,” Blackburn said.

They delved into Linux this semester because programming didn’t prove to be appealing. Getting a taste of Java, however, will help out down the road.

“You have to take programming classes, even if you plan to be a network administrator,” Johnson said.

Fellows overheard the admission that the duo isn’t wired for programming.

“That’s good to find out now,” he said. “Now they can focus on networking. There’s a million different ways of technology. They don’t need to get stuck in one track.”

In the row ahead of them, Polo High senior Anthony Singley, 18, was learning php programming through Code Academy, which shows what the final result will be, then walks the user through step-by-step coding.

“If you get lucky enough, you get into a job where you do this every day and enjoy life,” said Singley, who hopes to get a job building medical software. “This stuff’s never going away, and it’s always changing.”

Code Academy is part of the curriculum, but to some extent, students get to choose their own path in the course, which offers five dual credits at Sauk Valley Community College.

In the row ahead of Singley, Amboy junior Matthew Fawkes was building a rather simple game of rock, paper, scissors with Java.

“I just wanted to reaffirm myself with it,” he said, “because I’m going to be moving on to C++ coding soon, which is a far harder type of program.”

Fellows said even if students go into nondigital fields, the training comes in handy. For instance, one of his former students is a security guard, but still emails with an occasional question.

“This didn’t become his career, but he won’t need to pay anyone to fix his computer,” Fellows said.

He’s happy to stay in touch – you know, in case a Windows upgrade perplexes an alumnus.

“Even during the school year, things change,” Fellows said. “If I’m feeling lazy, I can’t be. There’s no letting up.”

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