Nick Gattuso is a computer science teacher at Point Pleasant Borough High School in New Jersey, where his students have developed a suite of learning applications to assist students with disabilities, as well as an emergency-response app for school officials. Last year, his students’ work was honored by the state school boards association.
“This November will be my 15th year at the high school. Prior to coming [here], I worked for 20 years for Bell Labs. It was the pre-eminent research institution of its time…I was scheduled to be in the Pentagon, in its computer center, on 9-11. The reason I wasn’t there was because it was back-to-school night for my daughter, who was in elementary school. After that…I wanted to give back. I was too old to be a cop or a fireman, so I decided to give back by becoming a teacher.
“I took an early retirement package from Bell, and was literally put into a teaching job with no experience. I have a master’s degree in software engineering, and also a bachelor’s degree in English and poetry. I took an almost $100,000 pay cut—no lie.
“When I was at Bell, we had done this work for a guy who was paralyzed in one arm. It was a voice-activation program that helped him do his work. Years later, I was talking to my son Nicholas, explaining this story and how this program had helped this guy, and we had the idea of building real software, something that means something to people. I went down the hall to the teachers in the special-needs programs, and they were like, ‘We’ve been waiting for you!’
“PALS stands for Panther Assisted Learning Software. In our case, my students have a set of customers downstairs, in special needs, and those customers are dependent on us to create programs that are actually meaningful, that help their lives. One of the applications we built teaches them how to go grocery shopping—with a shopping-cart simulator that has them rolling around a 3D store, picking up the bread. Another one helps them count money.
“When this thing started taking off, I went down to my administration and said, ‘We have Programming 1, and we then we have AP Computer Science, but there’s really no place for kids to go after that. So we created Advanced Software Engineering Topics. All we do is project-based, like it would be in college, or in the workplace. There are deadlines, but there are no tests.
“The question is: Did you solve the problem? Did you build something that will enrich the lives of the children downstairs? Did you make their lives better?
Some of my kids are working now for Google, for Apple, for Yelp. They make oodles of money, but they always know that the genesis of their work was building stuff for special needs kids, for doing good for somebody else.”