After a successful 20-year stint as a software engineer at Bellcore, Nick Gattuso ’88, ’90M shifted gears and became a teacher at Point Pleasant Boro High School.
It was 2002 when he launched the school’s computer science program, teaching students skills such as coding and programming at a time when many schools were still focused on typing. Today, his program is considered one of the best of its kind nationwide and has become a model that other schools want to emulate.
Gattuso’s teaching style is project-based learning: His students develop apps that can help solve real-world problems. PALS (Panther Assisted Learning Software), which he launched in 2013, partners his computer science students with special education students to develop apps that can benefit the latter.
“When we asked the students if there was any way we can help them, a river started flowing. There really wasn’t anything out there for special needs students,” says Gattuso.
The suite of software tools his computer science classes have developed can help special needs students learn to do anything from navigate the school to grocery shop.
One app, Lunch Buddy, which helps special needs students find a classmate to sit with in the cafeteria, won the 2017 Congressional App Challenge. With a click of a button, a message goes out to students who have signed up for the app, notifying them the student would like a friend to eat with.
Other apps are focused on solving a problem at the school or for the town. One sends an alert when a bridge is going up within a mile to help drivers re-route and avoid traffic. Another notifies students and parents in case of an emergency, such as a school shooting.
Gattuso is working on a licensing agreement so that other districts can have their own versions of this app. Once his students graduate, they can take their projects with them and continue to build them out, says Gattuso.
Moreover, the program’s alumni are now at Monmouth University and other top schools, and are employed at such companies as Google, Twitter, and Lyft, which has created an invaluable network to help his students succeed.
Gattuso, whose program was featured on NJTV’s “Classroom Close-up,” in a segment focused on innovative education in the state, says he’s now beta-testing the program at other high schools.
“Whether students become programmers or not, they need to learn to problem-solve,” he says. They need to know how to “understand complexity and simplify it, and go through the steps to solve a problem. They need to know how to work in a team and be held accountable. “These are the ingredients for success,” says Gattuso. “Our courses are prepping them for college and the real world.”