NORMAL — Software developers like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are some of the names at the top of Alyssa Licudine’s role model list.

“I want to become someone like that while evolving my own networking skills,” said Licudine, 18, a senior at Normal Community High School.

About 170 Twin City high school students who want to thrive in the technology field will spend the next five months working with State Farm employees to complete a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) project.

The Illinois Science and Technology Institute selected Normal Community, Normal Community West and Bloomington high schools among 38 Illinois high schools to team up with corporations to create an app or presentation relating to STEM.

On Tuesday, State Farm information technology employees met the students in an advanced-placement computer science class at NCHS.

“The more you talk to your mentor, the stronger your project will be. Take advantage of this opportunity to talk to these experts in the field to solve a real-world problem,” Emily Cooper, ISTI director of programs, told the students.

Teachers at each high school encouraged students to find an issue in the community that could be improved with an app or piece of software.

In previous years for the STEM challenge, students have created streamlined apps for schools, security systems and visual presentations.

Licudine said her group is creating an Uber-like app for high school students to carpool to school due to problems with late buses.

Senior Bradley Rozario said his group is working on a point system to reward drivers for safe driving techniques. His project will examine the ethics surrounding self-driving vehicles and who should be blamed if the car is in a crash.

“The mentors offer great insight,” said Rozario. “It proves that a big company like State Farm is made up of more than just auto insurance. They show how teamwork, variety and diversity is needed to make a successful company.”

Amy Feeney, AP computer science teacher, said that mindset is valuable for students to understand.

“It’s great for students to listen to mentors and their experiences to hear how they work in teams at State Farm,” said Feeney. “It’s important to know that being in IT isn’t an isolated job, sitting in a cubicle programming your own code; it’s a team effort.”

Nancy Smith, STEM mentor coordinator at State Farm, said the challenge helps pique student interest in information technology jobs.

“We’re helping feed the IT talent pipeline. As we Baby Boomers get ready to retire, we need students interested in information technology to be our new central workforce,” said Smith.

Besides the hands-on technology skills, students also learn how to work together professionally.

“Many of these young men and women are technically very strong, but in talking with mentors they will learn there is a lot more to being in IT than just being technically strong; you have to be able to articulate and communicate as a team,” said Kevin Reeves, STEM coordinator at State Farm.

Students will continue communicating with mentors, visit State Farm in December and present their projects in April. One group from each high school will be invited to share projects at an ISTI event April 27 in Chicago.

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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