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bob maginnis 11/26/00

November 24, 2000

The young architects of our high-tech future



From some of the reports you see in the metropolitan media, Washington County is a Western Maryland backwater, filled with semi-literate folks who split their time between bar fights and riding around in cars with loud mufflers and louder stereos.

Those of us who live here know that's not true, but how do we get the message out to those who might bring high-tech jobs here if they were certain that the work force wasn't dominated by slack-jawed hillbillies?

One way is by showing off some of our brightest young people at the Maryland Technology Showcase, to be held Dec. 6 and 7 at the Baltimore Convention Center. And they won't just be there as spectators. These students have won exhibitor status, because in large part, they produced the booth that will show off Washington County's high-tech assets to the rest of the state.

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Their project involved two main parts. The first is the backdrop, which features a map of Washington County marked with the location of a number of fiber-optic networks, the lines that are essential for high-speed computer use.

The map is surrounded by a series of photos, done by local master photographer Dale Swope, showing young people all over the county engaged in high-tech pursuits. There's everything from a graphic arts class at Hagerstown Business College to a group of youngsters at the county's Outdoor School doing simple scientific experiments.

The second part of the display is a touch-screen computer terminal, like the ones you use to order a sandwich at Sheetz convenience stores. Only in this case, instead of calling for a sub, a touch here or there takes you to the web pages of various local institutions, like the library or the hospital.

All of this was produced at Washington County's Technical High School, in the Advanced Computing and Visual Communications classes taught by Norm McGaughey and Melinda Robino respectively. They were kind enough to arrange a recent interview with some of the students working on the project.

To hear senior William Smith tell it, McGaughey turned the touch-screen part of the project into a competition of sorts.

"He separated us into three groups and each of us made our own designs. Then we'll get together and pick the best from each one," Smith said.

The project was made a bit more difficult because each of the different web pages that were linked had its own code, which meant fitting them together was a challenge, according to Jesse Morris, also a senior.

"I helped get many of the links worked out," he said.

LaNitra Higgins took on the task of color-correcting the photos, so that all have a similar look, even though they were shot under many different conditions with varying light sources.

"You basically have to have an eye for it," she said.

Sometimes how well it can be done depends on what you start with, Robino said. In one instance, students had to mute a harsh reflection from a photo flash gun.

"It involves an adjustment to the levels - the greens and blues and reds and yellows - and the contrast," said Stevie Dooley, also a senior.

I asked the students why they got involved in a computer work and was surprised at the variety of answers I got.

Dooley gravitated toward computer-assisted design work because ""I've always like art, and I'd rather be here learning to make art you can make money with. Being a starving artist just doesn't appeal to me."

Morris says he "grew up with computers and worked on them all my life."

In 10 years he hopes to be in the applications area, perhaps designing things like Internet Explorer.

Smith's interest was sparked when his father custom-built a computer. He likes the programming side and the feeling of pride he got when he completed building his first site on the World Wide Web.

Higgins said that by 2010 she hopes to be through with college, doing graphic designs for a company that produces things like business cards, stationery or even T-shirts.

Randell Irish, also a senior, says his interest also came from working with his father, who teaches computer applications. At age 14, he says, he was helping his father teach a class at the University of the District of Columbia.

In 10 years he hopes to have his own multi-faceted business, provide networking service as well as do retail sales of computers and related equipment.

The professional demeanor of these young people is hard to convey in a newspaper column. They seemed closer to 25 than 18, in temperament if not in age. Unlike most high school students, they did not joke or tease each other, which their teacher said is not an accident.

"The students who participated in this project are at the point where I can shoot a lot of instructions at them and they can follow through on them without a lot of supervision. Most of them are going on to college," Robino said.

Before that happens, however, they'll be representing this county during an event attended by hundreds of major companies and thousands of visitors. From where I sit, that's a big plus.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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