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For an hour each school day, a group of Bettendorf and Pleasant Valley high school students met together in the classroom for a real world experience.

Participating in the inaugural IT Academy — sponsored by John Deere, the 12 students worked alongside Deere & Co. mentors to delve into the computer science field. The end result was the development of a pair of Android mobile apps by the junior and senior students.

"This was our first time running the academy, but it definitely was the real deal," said Rebecca Signer, director of global IT parts, who served as project sponsor and IT Academy Champion. "They have terrific teachers in the STEM skills, but this gave them exposure to people living it everyday."

In the classroom or while meeting at a Deere facility in north Davenport, the students were asked to interview Deere mentors portraying customers to identify real issues in the agricultural industry. Split into two teams with students from each school, they developed the Scout Buddy app for agronomists and farmers to monitor their fields and a John Deere Rent app that created a rental network for farmers to lease John Deere equipment from other farmers. 

"These are not apps we are going to turn on," said Radhika Kasichainula, John Deere IT Finance project manager and one of the mentors. But she applauded the first class' work. "They are concepts that could one day be apps," she said. "We just wanted to gain their creative ideas."

The idea for the IT Academy began with a joint $25,000 grant that the schools received in 2015 as part of an effort by then Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's science, technology, engineering and math Advisory Council to build STEM Centers for Advanced Professional Studies, or CAPS, programs. Two years in the making, the local computer science academy was created with involvement and input from the Bettendorf and Pleasant Valley Business and Education Partnership, teachers and administrators from both districts, and representatives from area businesses and colleges.

Kasichainula and other mentors taught the students about different methodologies and provided training and coaching on the technical skills, such as coding and programming. "But the students had to come up with the design of the app and decide how they were going to solve (the problem)," she added.

The first semester wrapped up last week with student presentations at John Deere's World Headquarters in Moline. After hours of rehearsing, the teams — the Meme Admins and Ground Beef — took command of the company's auditorium stage as they discussed the development process and their experiences. A crowd of nearly 60 people included their mentors, other John Deere employees and executives, educators and representatives of both high schools, as well as the students' families.

"This was a complete different experience than anything in the classroom," Colton Urbaitis, a Bettendorf senior, said before the formal presentation. "We had to think about what we needed to do and handle it. If we got stuck, the mentors helped us."

"Even when we didn't know what we were doing, they kept their composure," he recalled.

Sydney Einck, a Pleasant Valley senior, compared the John Deere Rent app to "Uber for tractors." "It was a renting app where people could lend out their machines when they were not using it to other people to rent."

The idea, she said, was to give small farmers a way to access John Deere machines to borrow for use on their farms.

In addition to the IT and computer skills they gained, many of the students spoke about learning about working as a team and collaborating as well as having exposure to the wide range of careers in computer science.

"I had only ever worked with people I knew or saw in the hallway and working with two new people (from another school) was a challenge," Einck said.

Even with the professional venue and a huge overhead screen displaying their apps, there were several moments that reminded the crowd these were still students — including several good-natured jabs about the inter-school rivalry.

"I didn't expect to like anyone from Bettendorf being a PV student. But I like every one of them," PV senior Jacob Bumann said, prompting laughter from the crowd.

Others discussed how the academy is shaping their future plans. "I've been able to see truly what it's like to work in an IT field," said Aman Manazir, a PV junior. "Now I know what I'm going to go into — computer science."

After the presentation, he said such experience-based learning is something all schools should be doing. In many classes, students wonder "when are we ever going to use it," Manazir said, adding "This was an opportunity where everything we were doing was being used for a real-world approach."

The students' STEM teacher Rebecca Carton, of Bettendorf High School, said the academy surpassed the original expectations educators had for the new program. "We were just blown away by the John Deere mentors, their dedication, and by the students' self-motivation. They really stepped out of their comfort zone."

With nearly two years and 15 Deere mentors involved in curriculum's creation, organizers are hopeful the schools will continue the program into the future.

Applauding the students for doing "a fantastic job," Kasichainula said "They're almost ready to come to work for us. I'm just thrilled to be working for a company that does this type of thing for the community and is looking ahead to build local talent."

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