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Interview of Meenu Johnkutty: by Catherine Brennan

Meenu Johnkutty stands and receives her prize for her winning Maryknoll essay

Meenu Johnkutty, a senior at Kennedy, won this year’s Maryknoll student essay prompted “Caring for our Common Home” and received the $1,000 Bishop Patrick J. Byrne Award. Meenu is very passionate about climate change and in her essay, she wrote about ways we can respond to Pope Francis’s call for us to take care of our common home, the earth. Her essay can be read at: https://maryknollsociety.org/publications/essay-contest/ and will also be featured in the May/June Maryknoll Magazine. Recently, I asked Meenu few questions about her essay and her motivation to write about climate change. Here is what she said:

Can you tell me how you found out about the essay contest?

I found out about this essay contest while sitting in Ms. Willis’ AP Literature class! I saw this beautiful poster hanging in 106, and when I took a closer look, I saw that it was advertising an essay contest centered on climate change! As someone who is passionate about protecting the environment, I knew that this essay contest was calling my name.

Can you explain a little about what the prompt was for the essay contest?

The prompt for the essay contest was to describe ways in which climate change was being tackled in the local and international community. The contest was inspired by Pope Francis’ recent encyclical about climate change and respecting the environment.

What inspired you to write the essay?

When I was writing this essay last November, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were scaling tremendously. As I watched how the protesters battled cold temperatures and high winds to fight for what they believed in, I admired their strength and resilience. Their passion for the environment struck a similar chord within me and I felt moved to write a piece that I hoped would communicate how much climate change meant to me.

Has climate change been something you were passionate about or is it something that you have just recently began to think about?

 I have always been passionate about the environment. Ever since I was a little girl, I have always held a deep connection with the environment. Whether it be riding my bike in the summertime or running cross country, I feel most at peace when I’m outside. Naturally, as someone who loves the great outdoors, seeing the planet being abused and treated recklessly angered me. I just could not stand the thought of living in a society more focused on the “now” than the future. Unfortunately, we cannot continue our dependence on energy sources like fossil fuels that do more harm than good. Luckily, we are blessed with an abundance of clean energy alternatives like wind and solar that are limitless and cost-effective.

Pope Francis is a big advocate for protecting our planet. Can you maybe give some suggestions about what we can do to help support this cause?

 Pope Francis’ encyclical really gives a whole lot of hope for the future. As Christians, we are called to be stewards of this big blue planet that we are blessed to live in. Issues like climate change often seem too big to digest and process. But, when the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics writes an entire encyclical dedicated to raising awareness of climate change, then when we know that this is indeed a problem that demands global action. The first thing that anyone can do to support the climate change movement is to speak up! Climate change is real, not a myth! Individual action is also important. Small things like carrying reusable shopping bags and carpooling reduce our carbon footprint and bring us one step closer to tackling the abuse on the planet. But, all in all, I still do have a lot of hope when it comes to the climate change movement. Once people truly understand the gravity of the situation (which I hope will be soon), then collective global action will be imminent.

Conjugating Verbs on The Bleeding Edge: AP Computer Science Principles with Mr. Anderson

In another of those “quiet firsts” for which Kennedy Catholic has become famous, the school launched an Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles class this year. It’s the first time this course has been offered in the nation, and Kennedy is one of only 450 high schools in the country that are offering the class.

So… so far, so good…?

As with anything else, when you’re on the forefront of something you’re on the ‘bleeding edge,’ but we handle those hiccups,” Allan Anderson, Kennedy’s AP Computer Science teacher, laughed. “We’ve gotten excellent support to help us. I actually adopted the curriculum that was developed by Berkley University, it’s called the ‘Beauty and Joy of Computing,’ so everyday I get emails off a discussion board from Berkley folks who are using this across the country, so if we do run into a problem, we’ve got other people to collaborate with.”

Mr. Allan Anderson, in Classroom

Mr. Allan Anderson, teacher of AP Computer Science Principles at Kennedy Catholic High School

Mr. Anderson received his Masters in Computer Science in 1970 from Purdue University, at that time only one of three schools in the country to offer such a program (We’re sensing a pattern here…). After grad school he spent 23 years at IBM, later working as a network integration consultant in New York City, before moving into academia where he currently serves as Professor of Computer Science and Department Chair of Technologies at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Connecticut, in addition to his work at Kennedy.

Last year Mr. Anderson taught a class at Kennedy in the popular computer language Python that was extremely well-received. But with AP Computer Science Principles, he is casting the net a bit wider.

This class is meant for everybody going to college,” he explained. “Computing innovations have impacted everything in the world, and they will continue to impact everything in the future. So it’s important for everybody to understand what computing innovations are all about.”

One thing they are not about, Mr. Anderson believes, is exclusivity. He feels his peers haven’t been very effective at involving everyone in Computer Science education.

Let’s face it, the Computer Science population has been predominantly white male individuals. We’re trying to get minorities as well as females involved in Computer Science. And that’s one of the things the Computer Science Principles course is focusing on. It’s not just for nerds.”

Most high school computer classes around the country are fighting a losing battle against their aging hardware, but the computers in Kennedy’s Computer Science Lab are all brand new as of last year. So what kind of obstacles does AP Computer Science Principles face? Are there networking issues, run-time errors, corrupted databases…?

“The obstacles have nothing to do with Computer Science,” Mr. Anderson explained. “They have to do with being able to write well, and to be able to research, to come up with appropriate credible references. It is reinforcing what students probably already learned in an English class.”

It seems that students really aren’t expecting their Computer Science teacher to be hammering them about their grammar. But then, this is Kennedy…

It’s like, ‘Well, I don’t have to use those techniques here, I can treat it more like a ‘texting’ environment,'” Mr. Anderson elaborated. “The answer is ‘No!’ The number one requirement for employers is that their employees be able to communicate: written, orally, and definitely electronically!”

Note to students: Complete your brackets AND conjugate your verbs properly in Mr. Anderson’s class. As Morpheus admonished Neo in The Matrix, “Welcome to the Real World.”

Grammar aside, Mr. Anderson believes the old canard about Computer Science being intimidating for any student to learn is now officially played out. He cites the marketing efforts of one of the country’s largest toy manufacturers as supporting evidence.

Three of my five grandchildren are 3 to 3 and a half years old,” he said. “Fisher Price has a ‘Code-a-Pillar™’ that teaches beginning algorithm development. To a 3 year old! It’s a forty dollar toy, and these grandchildren are going to get one as a Christmas present. The five year old will be getting an Osmo system but that’s another story.”

AP Computer Science Principles makes use of an array of online tools, including Blackboard and a collaborative discussion board. Perhaps surprisingly, many students are a little slow to wrap their minds around the virtual meeting rooms, “…but it’s important for them to learn that,” Mr. Anderson made clear, “because that is what they are going to encounter, not only in their education facilities, but in their future careers, wherever that may take them.”