YSHS computer guru powers down
- Published: June 11, 2009
In an unseasonably warm third-floor classroom humming with rows of PC computers and hulking monitors, veteran teacher James Ventling surveyed the space, occasionally forced to peer around bundled groups of wires fed down from the ceiling. On the walls were maps of constellations, renderings of virtual landscapes and examples of graphic design. On his face was a smile, reflecting his feelings on a career spent learning along with his students. After 35 years teaching arts and computer sciences within the district, Ventling retires at the end of this school year.
Self-described as a craftsman and an artist, Ventling believes his interests in science and electronics have helped him foster a lifelong goal of learning that keeps him current in the ever-changing field of computer technology.
“It’s not a struggle to keep up — it’s exciting,” he said. “One of the joys of teaching is to pass that sense of excitement on to someone else.”
After earning his first degree in arts education, Ventling started teaching art at the Morgan Middle School, in the building which is now in use by the Greene County Educational Services Center. When access to home computers came around, “I was first in line,” he said. Venting later earned a masters in educational technology.
He was the first to own a home computer in his town in 1978, and it was so exciting that he “sat down in front of it and didn’t move for two weeks,” he said. This was before computers had hard drives, and before programs were available on the open market.
“You had to make your own,” he said.
Beginning with simple programs that could manage the grocery list, or a program to handle math equations, Ventling taught himself to program. DOS was the operating system, and BASIC was the language. When diskettes arrived on the scene, allowing new capacities for data storage, innovations got “really exciting” and haven’t stopped since, he said.
This hobby interest in computers led Ventling to help bring the first computers into the Yellow Springs schools, which he described as being very progressive in the field of computer education. He wired the first computers into a network, and generally was the acting computer coordinator for the Yellow Springs schools for 15 to 20 years — not the only one in charge, he noted, but the acting guru of the time. This led Ventling’s formal teaching further into the realm of computer programming and computer graphics.
In the early days, students first had to learn how to use a computer, then how to program. Today, Ventling says, students carry computers in their pockets.
“Now it’s teaching them what’s behind the screen — how to really make use of this tool,” Ventling said. It’s important for youth to not be controlled by what they think a computer can do, but for them to control the computer for their own purposes, he said.
And the concepts learned in Ventling’s computer classes are about skills that can be transferred from one field to another.
“Kids come in thinking they already know all about using word processors or making animations,” Ventling said, but “as soon as we start stretching out, building new skill bases, you hear kids saying, ‘I didn’t know I could do that!’”
Some of Ventling’s first students in computer programming, who were in high school about 25 years ago, went on to become computer programmers. Occasionally, Ventling will get a letter from a former student who took what they learned from Ventling forward into a college engineering degree. For Ventling, that some of his prior students are designing chips for major chip companies is not only “gratifying,” it’s a “thrill.”
Computer programming has become less desired as an elective, though, and Ventling’s departure will mark further changes in classes offered to students.
“I don’t think we will see more computer programming,” he said, though students will still have access to computer graphics classes.
Students who are interested in computer programming can look into programs through the Greene County Career Center, though he admitted these programs are more career-oriented than college -preparatory.
“It’s a cyclic thing,” Ventling said, and high school-level programming might come back into demand again. Still, the concepts learned in the computer graphics classes, which will continue to be offered by art teachers, have a certain timelessness, and can be applied in various fields no matter how the technology changes.
“Concepts like focal length, lighting and shadows, angles and contrast can be applied from cartooning and architecture,” Ventling said. “We are always taking these concepts and applying them to different areas.”
Ventling’s career within the district mirrors this transfer of skills throughout the disciplines. Through the years, he has taught computer graphics and computer programming to all grades — at the elementary, the middle school, and the high school and teachers. But he has also taught computer literacy and home construction. Along with computer graphics, his last year of teaching has brought him back, full circle, to middle school arts.
“It’s going to be hard,” Ventling said of leaving his position. “I’m very ambivalent. I didn’t think I wanted to quit teaching,” he said. “But, after 35 years, I’m almost to the point of teaching the grandchildren of my first students!”
In the main hallway on the first floor, there is a student bulletin board with clippings of newspaper articles featuring student achievements and memories from students who will graduate this year. One of the typed letters is stapled to a large picture of Mr. Ventling.
“Dear Mr. Ventling, you have shown me the ways of computer graphics in a way that no one else could,” the letter said, going on to detail various classroom antics, including the ruckus caused by a particular student and the “skadooshing” of a computer. The letter concludes: “Big V, you kept your cool and still managed to teach us the entire time.”
Ventling is quick to note retiring does not necessarily mean he will stop teaching. Along with spending more time with friends and family, Ventling figures he will find plenty of interests to keep busy with. His role on the board of trustees with the Boonshoft Museum of Natural History’s Regional Astronomical Society means he is never far away from the role of educational programming and outreach. And Yellow Springs students might even encounter him as a substitute on occasion.
A couple of years ago, Ventling was queried by an engineer at a science conference as to why he would tolerate the salaries in the field of teaching when he could make significantly more in the private industries. Ventling replied, “You are chasing fool’s gold — not all rewards are monetary.”
And if Ventling had it all to do over again? Without hesitation, he said, “I would still be a teacher.”