High-Tech Education Came to Fenwick a Quarter-Century Ago

Where in the World Wide Web has “FenTech” gone and, more importantly, where is it headed? Answers can be found in the growth of the school’s Bernard F. Brennan Computer Science Laboratory and CS programs.

By Mark Vruno

In 1993, could we have fathomed high-school educators teaching entire courses to teenagers on tablet computers? iPads weren’t even a tech “thing” 25 years ago, yet this past school year at Fenwick, the “Introduction to Computer Science” (CS) class was taught entirely on Apple iPads, reports Science Department Co-Chair Dave Kleinhans.

Turning Fenwick’s tech visions into realities over the past two-and-a-half decades has been made possible, in large part, by initial, generous funding from alumnus Bernard Brennan ’56, former chief executive (from 1985-96) of the Montgomery Ward department-store chain. Bernie is the younger brother of the late Edward Brennan ’51, former CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Ed and Bernie, the Brennan Bros., are a couple of Friars’ heavy-hitters:  Bernie is a member of the school’s Board of Directors as well as a 1986 Fenwick Hall of Fame inductee; Ed followed him to the school HOF in ’91.

A peek inside Fenwick’s Bernard F. Brennan Computer Science Laboratory, which officially was dedicated on February 28, 1993.

Twenty-five years ago, the younger Brennan and his family made a major leadership donation to create the Bernard F. Brennan Computer Science Laboratory, which was dedicated in early 1993. Students at the time, as well as members of the Fenwick Mothers’ Club, also contributed financially to the lab’s creation. Now 80 years old, Bernie Brennan’s blue-sky vision of “computerization projects” today partly resides in the virtual “Cloud,” of course. But keep in mind that, in early 1993, while email may have been a mainstream form of communication at most corporations, the Internet was a fledgling technology. Ever so slowly, companies were beginning to launch new, online branding devices called “websites.” The dot-com bubble (1997-2001) was still a few years off.

For Fenwick’s new Brennan Computer Lab, initial purchases in the mid-1990s included hardware, such as AST Bravo workstations and Netstore SCSI CD-ROM subsystems (used for information retrieval long before web browsers and cloud computing became popular), as well as software, electrical upgrades and accessories, including printers and furniture. The lab was designed to be used by the Math and Science Departments as well as the Library and the English Department. Tech-hungry teachers welcomed the new writing-lab segment, which featured desktop publishing systems for the Blackfriars Yearbook, The Wick student newspaper and staff newsletters.

Bernie Brennan’s 1956 yearbook portrait.

“It was clear to me that we were moving into the technology world at that point in time, and I wanted Fenwick to be in the leadership position,” Mr. Brennan reflected recently. “Ironically, I have been heavily involved in the technology sector for the past 20 years! It is easy to give back to Fenwick and our Dominican friends as they have done so much for the Brennan family. Fenwick’s focus on intellectual curiosity, discipline and uncompromising ethics is a beacon for us all.”

“Fenwick’s focus on intellectual curiosity, discipline and uncompromising ethics is a beacon for us all.” -Bernie Brennan ’56

New Millennium’s Web of Tech

Freshman math students in Mr. Andrew Thompson’s class, using their iPads (2017 photo).

It is interesting to note that each of Fenwick’s 1,152 incoming students this fall will have an iPad in her or his backpack. (Members of the outgoing Class of 2018 are the first Friars to have had tablet computers in their collective possession all four years.) With improved anti-cheating security measures in place, some high schools in Illinois already have adopted online final exams. Fenwick teachers have administered online quizzes and tests via their students’ iPads, but most educators in the building are proceeding with caution on that electronic front.

Since 2000, Fenwick has had a Technology Services Department in place that today is staffed by four full-time employees. These high-tech staff members manage the school’s more than 400 computer systems and a highly secure Wi-Fi network as well as some 30 switches and 122 access points — not to mention the telephone and email systems and 92 copy machines/printers! Associate Tech Director Fr. Mike Winkels, O.P. also feeds content to a total of six electronic bulletin boards displayed in the cafeteria, outside the library and elsewhere throughout the school.

Fenwick Technology Director Ernesto Nieto

Fenwick’s students, faculty and staff alike often take this tech group’s behind-the-scenes work for granted. Even those of us old enough to remember slow modems and non-connectivity have come to expect our 21st-century, networked, electronic devices to work – “magically” — with no glitches. “We do a lot of things that people probably don’t think about,” says Director of Technology Services Ernesto Nieto, who came to Fenwick in ’01 by way of St. Ignatius College Prep, the Dominican Conference Center, the Shrine of St. Jude and DePaul University.

To solve a recurring slow-network problem, data-transfer speeds between hardware devices are doubling this summer to 500Mbsp (megabits per second) “Our bandwidth may jump to 1Gbps [Gigabits per second] in the future,” Mr. Nieto predicts. (One Gbps is equal to 1,000 Mbps, or 1 billion bits per second.) Additionally, the tech team is in the process of creating wireless networks for each classroom, which also should unjam bottlenecks and further alleviate network pressure, he believes.

Using Technology – and Teaching It

Last summer, shelves overflowing with dusty, old periodicals and reference books were removed from about one-fourth of Fenwick’s 5,280-square-foot John Gearen ’32 Library. The cleared-out space has paved the way for a modern, Digital Resource Room that features Apple TVs, 48-inch monitors, an interactive projector and a 65-inch Clevertouch interactive panel.

The library’s new Digital Resource Room features Apple TVs, 48-inch monitors, an interactive projector and a 65-inch Clevertouch interactive panel.

“The new room was used in many ways this past school year,” reports Digital Learning Specialist Bryan Boehm. Students collaborated for projects in class and tutored their peers there. “[English Teacher] Mary Marcotte used it to compare and contrast the different variations of Beowulf translations,” Boehm notes, “and Dave Kleinhans had students show their final projects for computer science in the Digital Resource Room.”

On the Computer Science academic front this past school year (2017-18), Friars’ teachers taught four sections of the aforementioned, foundational CS class with a total of about 80 students. “Five or six years ago, there were maybe six kids in each [intro] class for a total of 24 students,” notes Mr. Kleinhans, who came to Fenwick following a 20-year career as a successful software-industry executive and also has taught math during his decade with the Friars. Program-wide, approximately 17% of young Friars – nearly 200 students — now are enrolled in Fenwick’s computer-science offerings.

Students in Mr. Roche’s class wrote code to create an app for playing Blackjack.

Kleinhans and his math, science and IT (information technology) colleagues have been busy revamping the Friars’ CS curriculum to more closely align with modern tech. “With so many students going into engineering and business, we made some changes to prepare them better for the workforce,” explains Math Teacher and alumnus Kevin Roche ’05, a 2009 environmental-engineering graduate from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign).

“We work [hard] … to make sure that the courses we create, along with the sequence, are part of leading practices,” adds Kleinhans, a fellow Illini alumnus. Fenwick Principal Peter Groom notes that substantial internal and external collaboration goes into making curriculum decisions and changes. “We are not myopic in our development,” Groom explains. “In addition to obtaining input from our own faculty, we have partnered with OTCR Consulting,” the University of Illinois’ engineering and business consultancy comprised of top-tier students primarily from the Colleges of Engineering and Business. “The OTCR organization has provided us with a lot of valuable information and has made recommendations for Fenwick, many of which we’ve run with,” he says.

Jacob Marchetti ‘19 plays a “Flappy Bird” video game made by Fenwick young alumni Colleen Lawlor ’16 and Henry Lorenzini ‘16 in Computer Science class two years ago.

Most course proposals from 2017 have been implemented. A Computer Skills for Business class was rolled out this past academic calendar. “We focused mostly on teaching programming for Microsoft Excel in VB [Visual Basic], so that students have some coding exposure,” reports Mr. Roche (below, standing), who also coaches girls’ cross country/track and moderates Tests of Engineering Aptitude, Mathematics, and Science (TEAMS). Post-college, he practiced for a few years as a consultant before returning to Fenwick and has since earned a master’s in teaching from Dominican University in River Forest, IL. In his Computer Skills for Business class, exercises include a module called “College Expenses,” which has students research and tabulate the cost of their top four to six schools. “Survey Charts” has them look up demographic data and break down their income according to identified ethnicity. “We also worked with the Reyes Company to have kids create their own workforce and, considering sales, determine their employees’ commissions,” Roche says.

“There is still a post-AP CS course that has not yet been developed,” he adds. This year, senior Colleen Corcoran ’18 did independent study of a college CS course out of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. (Ms. Corcoran is headed to Saint Louis University this coming fall.) “We have yet to develop an in-house course, however, for the students to continue to pursue computer science material after the AP [Advanced Placement] course,” Roche says.

In the near future, Kleinhans envisions such a post-AP class for kids interested in becoming CS engineers, while acknowledging that they are a relatively small set of Fenwick’s overall student population. Continuing to partner with a university (such as IIT) may be the answer or, perhaps, some type of online offering.

In his opinion, Fenwick’s next area of investment should focus on more classroom and laboratory spaces as well as upgraded electric systems. He would like to create a lab-based CS curriculum for the “do-ers” who thrive with more hands-on learning.

Incoming senior Thomas Georgiev ’19 works with the school’s 3D printer up in the “Bell Tower” classroom.

High up in the school’s bell-tower classroom, Math Teacher Dave Setum has assembled a make-shift, DIY (do-it-yourself) “makerspace” of sorts, which includes etching tools, a laser cutter and a 3D printer with Maya three-dimensional rendering software for computerized animation. Mr. Setum, who teaches courses in CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/manufacturing) and technical drafting as well as calculus, completed his undergraduate degree in mathematics and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and earned a master’s in teaching from National-Louis University in Chicago. He is looking forward to students having access to 25 new Dell personal computers (PCs), with robust video cards, in his drafting classes this coming 2018-19 school year.

Last Christmas, students in Mr. Dave Setum’s class used the laser cutter to manufacture wooden ornaments for Fenwick’s faculty and staff.

More powerful computer hard drives aside, colleague Kleinhans voices his concerns that, while well-intentioned, the Bell Tower Classroom could be so much better. “Dave really needs a dedicated, formalized makerspace/lab type of learning environment for his students’ technical design and drawing endeavors,” Kleinhans contends.

Beyond social media

Kleinhans also believes that all Friars’ students should take at least one semester of Computer Science, adding that the University of Dayton’s School of Business Administration requires its students to obtain certificates for Microsoft’s Excel database/spreadsheet program. He cites the example of Fenwick young alumnus Carlos Soto ’14, who recently graduated from Dayton (Ohio) and is working as a part-time business analyst for Deloitte Global. With all of his programming and Excel experience in high school, Soto felt well-prepared for the rigors of college. Such exposure and preparedness are key for Fenwick students, in Kleinhans’ opinion. “It helps to be ready,” he says.

Tinkering with Fenwick’s Computer Science curriculum is an evolutionary process. Two years ago there was a recommendation for an AP (Advanced Placement) CS Principles course that would include such topics as the Internet, Big Data/privacy, programming and algorithms. “However, we are no longer pursuing this because we now have a more rigorous course in Computer Science A,” explains Math Teacher and alumnus Ray Kotty ’85, who also attended undergrad at U of I.

The bottom line is that “our students need tech skills beyond Snapchat,” Kleinhans jests. But seriously: in the work force, specific skills translate to productivity in today’s corporate and high-tech/IT worlds. Employment recruiters and hiring managers “go to the ‘Skills’ section of the résumé,” he points out. “They’re looking for things like Excel, SAP [software experience] and apps [building] skills.”

CAD/CAM Teacher Mr. Setum (left) and student Thomas Georgiev ’19 install a tube in Fenwick’s laser-cutting machine.

Heading into the third decade of the 21st century, jobs have changed — and so has college, he adds. Approximately one in four Fenwick students are on the “STEM” track of Science, Technology, Engineering and/or Mathematics, according to the Student Services Dept. “Prototyping skills are required for these kids. Where will they do that?” Kleinhans asks.

Meanwhile, Fenwick’s latest hardware investments are set for mid-July installments, as leasing agreements for 15 office PCs have expired. The aforementioned new PCs in the Math Lab replace four- and five-year-old OptiPlex 7010 models. While intensive CPUs/GPUs may solve the problem of frequent lag times and system crashing that plague many of today’s students, upgraded technology won’t change what Fenwick has been for the past 90 years and will continue to be: a rigorous, liberal-arts academic institution with sharp foci on English, history, mathematics and theology.

Jacob Marchetti ’19 (left) and Jack Vomacka ’18 enjoy a Tron game made in CS class by former Fenwick student Patrick Ebzery in 2016.

Technology, after all, is a tool. “Our faculty develops humans and makes children into leaders,” points out Science Department Co-Chair Marcus McKinley, who received a bachelor of arts degree from Carleton College in Northfield, MN, and a master’s in chemistry from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. “We at Fenwick are experts in college prep, and we are not revising our thinking as to who and what we are,” he insists. “Fenwick never has indiscriminately shifted with the winds of change. The school has evolved and constantly strives to be the premier college-prep institution. The end goal still is to mold empathetic people who can think critically.”

Artist’s rendering of Fenwick’s future facility plans heading into the 2029 centennial year.

There always is room for improvement. “Of course we can make Fenwick even better than it already is,” McKinley stresses. “And to do that, we need equipment; we need facilities upgrades; and we need infrastructure.” Stay tuned in, techies. And in the meantime, please consider donating to Excellence, Leadership, Tradition: The Centennial Capital Campaign for Fenwick High School.

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