Academy360’s Joe Ostroman has turned his personal passion for all things coding and computers into a course of study that has brightened the lives of his students, including one young man whose aptitude for computers has flourished under the mathematics teacher’s instruction.
With a technical resume rivaling many adults, 17-year-old Leo S. began exploring SCRATCH, a type of early-education visual programming language, in first grade. He participated in LEGO competitions, took an intro course in PYTHON coding language, began creating art using GIMP (an open-source design application, similar to Photoshop), experimented with 3D modelling program Blender, and was an active Minecraft player – all before reaching sixth grade.
A bright, funny, talkative young man who would charm teachers with his exhaustive knowledge on just about any subject, his early instructors deemed Leo as “gifted.” But his parents came to realize that their son also had problems communicating any of this through written language, in addition to rising social difficulties and other issues. A screening for autism revealed that Leo was on the spectrum.
“He is what’s known as a ‘‘Twice Exceptional’ student,’” explains his mother, Bridget. ”Gifted, but also diagnosed with disabilities which can be a wide range of things. Leo is on the far end of that.”
After a number of years homeschooling and attending a private special education school, his parents began seeking an educational experience where Leo could work on growing his social, functional and life skills while also continuing to focus on his passion for computers, design and everything tech-related. A therapist recommended Spectrum360’s high school to his parents and following an interview in which Leo “blew everyone away,” says mom, they enrolled him at Academy360.
Enter Joe Ostroman.
Joe introduced coding into his classroom lessons in 2018, as well as 3D modeling software, simple experiments and even a stock market club as a way to energize his students’ math experience.
“The main challenge in teaching math is to make it exciting,” says Joe. “Every part of math is functional, but making it exciting is definitely going to make it easier for them to remember.”
Joe’s own path into coding laid the groundwork for his lesson plans at Academy 360. Friendship with a data scientist at Merck gave him a social insight into that world and coincided with learning advanced functions in Excel, which he applied to automating his grading and progress reports in a way that freed him to focus on the creative side of teaching.
Creating complex spreadsheets and seeing endless possibilities in training computers to make predictions, Joe began studying data science himself, and dove into programming languages such as Python and anything else that caught his eye.
“The more you learn to do it, the more you can take something that just seems so mundane and abstract and make it a teachable exercise,” says Joe.
“We had no idea someone like Joe was at A360 when we enrolled Leo in school,” says Bridget, who was looking for ways to continue Leo’s technical education. Following a recommendation from Leo’s teacher, Kent Winterrowd, Bridget approached Joe at a Back-to-School night with a folder of her son’s computer accomplishments. From that meeting, things took off.
The duo have been working together on a one-to-one basis for about two years, with Joe introducing Leo to the growing field of Machine Learning, a branch of artificial intelligence which uses data analysis to automate analytical model building in variable situations – in other word, the engine that drives everything from Netflix recommendations to researching cures for disease.
For practical lessons in the subject, Joe guided Leo through an online independent internship with the multinational accounting corporation, KPMG, which has set up a virtual job scenario in which you work on assigned tasks and programs, and then submit your work supervisors to review.
Students are given a virtual boss who communicates through recorded videos explaining background information on the project, instructions and expectations. The internship involves everything from working on datasets including hundreds of lines of code, to replying to “voicemail” messages from bosses asking for status updates or changing instructions. Interns then study how to prepare data for presentation and marketing. The combination of technical and practical experience leads to a certificate to include on resumes and provides insight into what type of work students are suited for.
“I love working with Leo,” says Joe.” The internship has shown a lot of growth, not only technically, but with maturing writing skills and communication. It’s been a fantastic experience.”
Leo’s parents have been thrilled to find a teacher who recognized Leo’s aptitude and was able to see beyond the challenges and encourage him to tackle new experiences. Studying subjects such as machine learning could be a huge bonus for future employment in a technical field.
“Joe is incredibly skilled, incredibly knowledgeable, and cutting edge,” Bridget enthuses. “To find somebody like that is beyond our wildest dreams. We couldn’t have been luckier.”
With coding and computer languages being a valuable skill set for any student, Joe hopes to bring technology instruction to more and even younger students in the future. His coding class was popular with a diverse set of students, before the pandemic put pause to it. In 2020 they participated in Hacktoberfest, with Leo and classmates posting lines of code to the project’s Github, a repository for open source code created by independent developers.
Whether studying serious applications, making creative use of classroom technology, or participating in activities such as Stock Market Champs, the “competition” where students vie to earn the most with virtual stocks they research and track in spreadsheets – the possibilities and opportunities are endless for all Academy360 students!