Jessie Foley with mentor Dr. Brandon Lucia. Dr. Lucia won the 2015 Bell Labs Prize for his work to make intermittent computer systems operate reliably while using only the tiny amounts of energy that they can “harvest” from their environment, like radio waves and indoor lights.
Growing up, Jessie Foley was always a bit different. He knew he was smart
and he knew that this didn’t always make him popular in school. And that’s why City High was the perfect choice for Jessie.
City High surrounded Jessie with other smart kids, so he didn’t feel out of place. But it also gave him the opportunity to pursue his real love – computers. After all, there is a robotics team and even a 3D printer.
It was his internship experience, however, that taught the best lessons. As the first City High student to earn a coveted internship spot in Assistant Professor Brandon Lucia’s research lab in Carnegie Mellon University’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, Jessie learned plenty about emerging computer technology. He even taught himself Ubuntu Linux, and the Python, and C, and C++ programming languages. But Jessie also learned some even more valuable personal lessons. “I learned I’m not the only geek out there,” he admits. “I worked with some PhD students at CMU (Alexei, from Moldova and Vignesh, from India) and almost every other word they said went right over my head. But they were kind enough to help me understand it and push my learning a little further.” He learned it was okay to be wrong about things and not know everything. He also learned that he could find answers and solutions if he put his mind to it.
“Jessie’s project was to build a system using an experimental computer platform called the MicroBit, which was developed by Microsoft Research, an industry-leading computer science research lab.”
According to his mentor Brandon Lucia, a real-game changer in the computer world who was awarded the 2015 Bell Labs Prize, “I think one of the strong suits that Jessie had during his internship was the ability to work independently and decide, ‘These are the tools I need to use, so I’m going to go and learn how to use these tools.’ And that’s the right attitude for research; you figure out what you need to do and you go out and do that thing.”
As Jessie heads off to a degree in computer science from either Penn State or University of Pittsburgh, Jessie will apply that lesson to life. He will “figure out what he needs to succeed and go out and do that thing”. Hopefully at Google or AutoDesk.
Without City High’s inclusive nature, innovative techniques and supportive teachers none of this could have happened. Jessie admits, “Looping is a great part of this school. It really does allow you to get to know your teachers. I know a few of my teachers told me they used to be programmers and they really helped me learn how to get into the field myself. There’s a teacher on the senior side that uses Python (a popular programming language) and I’m not in the class myself, but he still stops by and gives me some challenges to work on every now and then. He talks to me about it and helps me advance myself.”
Jessie’s first task was to develop software that would run on the experimental hardware, which required Jessie to independently learn a new development tool chain. Achieving this goal involved a lot of independent learning and discovery. The ability to find resources and learn independently was one of the things that made Jessie so successful during his internship.
Jessie has stacked up a list of achievements at City High: a 3.54 GPA, a Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship, a place on the Robotics team, a coveted internship in his field, a member of the City High student tech team that actually maintains the school’s computers. He’s also landed scholarships at TechShop Pittsburgh, one of only 13 sites worldwide to provide students with access to instruction, tools, software and space to build their dreams. Currently he’s in an after-school program entitled Advanced Inventor Sessions.
But even with all this going for him, Jessie admits he struggled a little with basics. Perhaps this is yet another reason why City High was the best choice for him. Jessie recalls, “My old school didn’t go over long division well. But my City High math teacher did get me to learn… she beat it into my head basically. I was in her honors class and every day felt like a headache, but I knew I was learning. My old school… I did not feel like I was learning anything back then. She really goes far and makes sure everyone learns what they need to.”
That makes all the difference.