Community editor and columnist Kris Capps is a longtime resident of Fairbanks and Denali Park. Contact her at kcapps@newsminer.com, in the office at 459-7546 or by cell at 322-6334. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.

Amazon is changing student lives and futures in the high school at Nenana. The school was selected to participate in the Amazon Future Engineering program, and Amazon now funds computer science classes there.

According to teacher Eric Filardi, the program has provided training for staff and has shared high school curriculums, including introduction to computer science and AP computer science — at no cost to the school.

The uniqueness of the Nenana City School and community caught Amazon’s eye when reading Filardi’s application. The company even sent a film crew to document life in the community of 400, just 50 miles south of Fairbanks on the Parks Highway.

“They were absolutely thrilled,” Filardi said. “And there was such a quick turnaround. Less than six months later, we have fully integrated computer science curriculum into our school. We already had engineering but we didn’t have computer science.”

He and colleague Kaylee Larson teach the classes. The added curriculum now complements the engineering program, as well as the new classes on drone construction and operation.

“This was the natural next step to take,” Filardi said. “It was the direction we were headed. Amazon just made it happen instantly.”

Think about it, Filardi said. Computer science is a job skill that can translate to anywhere in the state.

“It’s something that can be done remotely or on-site, and it is applicable to so many different career paths,” he said. “It’s so relevant for our kids in so many different ways.

Even the students realize how special the program has become, he said.

One student who is interested in veterinary science and animal husbandry looks at computer science as a way to bring small farms across the state into a closer knit community, using digital communication for job skill training.

“That’s not something I could have ever imagined,” Filardi said. “It’s obvious kids are interested in engineering fields and this is a way of substantiating that.”

It is especially exciting that it can be learned and applied wherever the students happen to be at the time.

“To be in the geographic location in which we live, that is something that is important,” he added.

Amazon decided to send a film crew after speaking with Filardi at his home. When he told them he lived in a 265-square-foot dry cabin with his wife and daughter, they asked, “What’s that?”

By the time he finished describing his everyday lifestyle, a film crew was scheduled for a visit last month. The video, attached at the end of this story, opens with Filardi and his wife Hannah brushing their teeth on the outside deck of their cabin. It continues, documenting life in the classroom.

“It’s really nice to have an administration that allows me to test things out,” Filardi said. This opportunity to improve student learning is “part of what makes my career in Nenana so substantial,” Filardi said. “As a profession and a person, I feel incredibly fulfilled.”

“Our staff seeks to build that within each other,” he added. “Our students recognize we have something special.”

With the addition of Nenana City School, Amazon now funds computer science classes in more than 2,000 high schools across the country through the Amazon Future Engineer Program. According to Amazon, “This program is supporting more than 100,000 students from underserved and underrepresented communities across all 50 states.”

Computer science is the fastest-growing STEM profession, but only 8% of STEM graduates earn computer science degrees, with a tiny minority from underprivileged backgrounds, according to Amazon. Students from underprivileged backgrounds are eight to 10 times more likely to pursue college degrees in computer science if they have taken advanced placement computer science in high school, Amazon said in a news release.

The Bureau of Labor estimates that by 2020 there will be 1.4 million computer-science-related jobs available and only 400,000 computer science graduates with the skills to apply.

And in a final weird coincidence, Filardi said, he learned that the product manager of the program (who had no hand in selecting the schools) is married to a graduate of Nenana high school — Mayanna Bean.

Here is the Amazon video about Nenana: bit.ly/2BOivRd.

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at kcapps@newsminer.com Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris

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