Beyond teenage chat rooms - learning how the Internet works

Amity teacher Marilyn Bonomi has a special wish for her Cisco Academy Networking courses: next year she hopes that girls as well as boys will enroll.

For three years the classes have been all-male enclaves, but both Bonomi and Applied Education Department Head Bill Schmidt see opportunities for girls who are strong in math and science in the world of Internet Technology.

"Employers are aware of the need for diversity and balance but they can't find women. In this field, there is no pink-collar ghetto," Bonomi says, "Women are paid well and in some cases, more than men."

Cisco, Inc., one of the world's leading manufacturers of computer network equipment, sponsors the networking courses, sending the curriculum on-line to high schools and other learning institutions around the globe. According to the Academy website, the curriculum was developed in 1997 "to bridge the digital divide."

In school, Bonomi explains and supplements the on-line data and conducts the hands-on laboratories. To become a Cisco instructor, she volunteered to spend parts of two summer vacations in immersion courses offered by the company.

Just what do students learn? According to one of the students, "how the internet really works."

In class, the boys bandy about terms like packet (a small amount of data that is generally a piece of a larger block of data), router (a component which logically chooses the best possible route for a packet to a destination), collision (when two computers attempt to send data on the same network segment), switch (a device that breaks up the network into smaller collision domains, increasing the speed of the network by decreasing collisions). Listening to them talk to each other is like being surrounded by speakers of a foreign language.

By the end of the first year of the course, the students can implement a complete network solution for a school district, or a local area network (LAN). In the second year, theory and wide area networks (WANs) are covered. The students learn to set up a network that is fast, reliable and stable. They work on an honors project, developing and costing out a mock network. They plan the network utilizing their computers, wire it and configure a program in the router, putting in commands.

At the end of the two years, students are eligible to take a Cisco Company test to work as Cisco Certified Network Administrators (CCNA). Those wishing to advance in network administration can continue studying to become a CCNP. They would then be qualified to deal with complex network issues for large corporations. In the next and highest designation that the company offers, a candidate must be able to fix a router in one day. The students say that few qualify at that level.

According to Schmidt, "The District needs classes like this because we have students going on to technology in college and in business. With certification, students can go on or find employment."

Both Schmidt and Bonomi agree that this is a "high powered class" and some knowledge of computer technology is needed before enrolling. Strong math and science skills are needed as well.

"I encourage the young women to come talk to me about the Cisco Academy and about women in technology more generally," Bonomi said, adding that she also encourages the young men to come and discuss taking the courses.

"I hope to see a full class of male and female students next year."