Catching Up with Steve Morrill

Mr. Steve Morrill, Director of Technology and Cyber Science at Loyola Blakefield, recently returned from Australia, where he conducted professional learning workshops and presentations for educators on the development of Loyola’s cyber program. He was personally invited by program sponsors LifeJourney, the Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE), and Day of STEM. In addition to his presentations, several current and former Loyola students participated in portions of his workshops via video conferencing.

We caught up with Mr. Morrill and he shared some highlights of his nine days in Australia.

What were some of the highlights of the trip?

There were so many great moments, but for me it was really getting to see the reactions from the people we encountered and how open they were to new ideas. I would describe the teachers and administrators that we met as tenacious educators. They are anxiously seeking new ways to provide opportunities for students, even if that means preparing them for careers that they hardly know exist for them.

I can’t begin to describe the way they reacted to our students who they heard from via Skype. Being able to have them share their unscripted experience was so well received and they appreciated having their perspective. We have already been invited back and they specifically want more face time with our students.

What were the general reactions to the participants in the sessions?

It was a full spectrum that included those who seemed a bit overwhelmed, some confused by a topic that was new to them, and others who were inspired and excited. Generally speaking, the reactions we received were very positive. Some described it as the best professional development they ever took part in, which was great to hear. It was the students who really became the stars. Folks wanted to know how they could get their students to be as enthusiastic about school as ours were, others stated that the never met students more dedicated to a cause or subject area. In fact, there was a running joke that perhaps I bribed them to be up at 3:00 a.m. to be on Skype! Far from the truth, of course. We were also lucky to have girls from local schools take part in conversations as well, and that was great too. The parents who I encountered were very appreciative to learn of career possibilities that they never knew were possible. Construction and mining, and other associated trades are so prevalent in Australia, so learning about a field that is on the verge of emerging as a powerhouse throughout the continent was exciting for them.

Who are some of the key people that you met along the way?

We were fortunate to meet with members of Australian Parliament, leaders from boards of education, and curriculum developers. We also had the chance to meet and interact with members of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), which is the equivalent to our CIA. ASD (their NSA). Unfortunately, some events in the political arena kept us from getting to meet the Prime Minister, but it is clear that from the top down, changes are happening that are going to make Australia a leader in computer science education.

What are some of your observations on the educational landscape?

I sensed that there is some lack of alignment between secondary schools and the universities. There are a few universities that are understand this and doing things to close the gap. The public schools there operate on a federal system without a lot of control at the local level. Independent schools have more flexibility to make changes that suit their needs. It is clear though, that industry and government are making a real push to accelerate changes across the educational landscape and I have no doubt that they will move at light speed once they get started.

What stood out to you regarding Australian culture?

I’ll say this…they are very direct people. They get right down to business and ask whatever questions are on their mind. So I’d say friendly people, but very direct. The cities are extremely clean from what I observed. It was impressive to see how well planned some of them were in terms of how you get around, but they were just spotless too. It was also clear that teachers are treated very well and are highly respected. As a group, they possess a desire and drive to be leaders in education. They are fully aware that young people are the future and are making great strides with industry to create opportunities in the coming years.

I will also add one random observation. They are extremely efficient with airline luggage. You step off the plane, get to the carousel and your bags are already there. There are many people who commute by plane every day in Australia so the system operates with tremendous precision.

What type of follow-up do you foresee?

We have already talked about the possibility of a return visit. If that happens, we’d love to have students be present so that they can run workshops for their peers. There was a lot of interest in the social media awareness work that we do here in the Baltimore region, so we may replicate that for Australian students. There is also some early dialog about partnering with some of the Jesuit schools there in a type of student exchange. There will be virtual interaction for sure, but now that we have so manty relationships formed, I am certain that much more will be planned in the future.

Any tourist moments for you?

Honestly, we were jetting from one city to the next so quickly that it was hard just to know where you were when you woke up. I did get about 10 minutes one day to feel like a tourist. They dropped me off in front of the opera house in Sydney and I was able to get my photo taken there. It was a very impressive section of the city. I would love to go back, slow down and just be a tourist.

I wish I could say that I sampled Australian cuisine, but that didn’t quite happen. I was on the go a lot, so we dined at a Chinese restaurant one night, an Italian one another. I was informed that Melbourne is the place to be if you want to really get a sense of local and international flavors, so maybe next time. I did observe that baked beans are a breakfast staple, which was interesting. Also, poached eggs and fried ham (their bacon) were a regular breakfast item.

One of the coolest things was taking off from the airports and seeing this vast openness that resides outside of the cities. The population is extremely concentrated in the cities and along the coast, so once you get into the interior there is nothing to see on the ground.

What were you most looking forward to upon your return?

Just coming back to see my family. I enjoyed the Australian accent, but I will say that it was nice to hear the American accent and not be the guy that everyone looks at and questions where you came from! I was looking forward to getting back to a routine and the rhythm of the school year.

As you reflect a bit, what do you take away from the experience?

One of the coolest things that happened was when I was at a career fair in what I would describe as a school that is socioeconomically underserved. I was standing next to a construction worker and a finance professional. Parents and students were making their way around the room and I ended up having a nice conversation with a mother. I noticed that her son had his head phones in, was staring down at his phone, and mostly just signaling that he didn’t want to be there. At one point, I knew it was time to get his attention. So, I get him talking a bit (mostly short and direct responses back from him) and he tells me he hates math and numbers in general. I said “great…probably the most honest thing you have told anyone in this room today.” Then he goes on to say that he likes sports. I push him further, and it turns out that he knows his stats, the stats of the athletes performing above and below him, and what it takes for him to advance. Then, I tell him about capology (art of managing a salary cap and evaluating player performances/stats) and suddenly he starts to see how something he actually likes a lot includes mathematics that he also happens to like working with. I introduced him to the virtual simulation that works with the Australian Football League. Once he got a sense of that and knew that he would also be competing against other kids at his school to build the best and most efficient team, he was suddenly interested. Before I knew it, more and more kids were making their way to our booth. Mom couldn’t believe that we got him talking about math. This is just one example of how we are breaking down stereotypes that involve technology careers being reserved for just the academic elite, or those labeled computer geeks. Computer science and informatics has a place for just about anyone.

After building a program here at Blakefield that you just introduced to an entire continent, what’s next?

I think the movement taking place in Australia is going to continue to push the Five Eyes (an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States) to integrate further and seek educational changes as a major part of their growth in the industry. With 93% of secondary schools in the U.S. still not teaching computer science, I think we have a long way to go domestically. So the next big frontier is really any school that is not taking computer science seriously.

The experience I had in Australia was amazing. The hardest thing to do is conveying just how impactful the students were. I tried to express this to them and their families, but they just influenced thousands of people. When someone asked them what they did this summer, they can confidently respond “I inspired a nation.”

For me, if you told me five years ago when we started this program that I would be in a foreign country talking to people about what we were doing and having our guys up at 3:00 a.m. to chime in, I would not have believed you. When I look back on it, that’s the part where I was like are you kidding me? I felt like somebody should pinch me, because this is too cool.
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