A Public + Private Mashup: For Computer Science Education

Article excerpt

Getting called into the boss's office isn't always fun. Memories of trips to the school principal's office flash through your mind.

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But the day last year that I was called in to meet with our division vice president turned out to be a very good day. Executives at my company, Microsoft, had noticed the program I created in my spare time to train and place industry professionals as volunteer computer science (CS) teachers at local schools. They thought it was a great idea that needed to grow. So I was offered the chance to run the program full-time, with backing from the company.

Thus the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program was "officially" born. But the program had begun unofficially three years earlier. in 2009, when I taught a first-period computer science class at a Seattle high school in the mornings before I went to work.

While some thought it was a strange way for me to spend my early mornings, it was actually a very natural thing for me to do. After earning an electrical engineering and computer science degree from UC Berkeley, I taught computer science for three years in California and then went to Harvard for a master's degree in education. I joined Microsoft to work on Office365 and soon discovered a serious gap affecting both education and the technology sector.

All technology companies have problems finding qualified candidates for technical job openings, and our public schools don't have the resources to teach students the computational thinking skills to launch them towards those careers.

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When some of my Microsoft peers heard about my "moonlighting" in the schools, several expressed a willingness to do the same. In 2010, there were 10 of us in four schools. A year later, there were 35 in 13 schools. That's when the company took notice of what we were doing and decided to help expand it exponentially with staffing and resources.

This school year, we have 110 TEALS volunteers--mostly from Microsoft, but with about 20 percent coming from other technology companies--working with teachers in 37 high schools to teach computer science to more than 2,000 students. Some 300 of those students are enrolled in Advanced Placement Computer Science (AP CS) classes.

The program operates primarily in Puget Sound-area schools, but now extends from coast to coast, with participating schools in California, Utah, Minnesota, Washington, DC, Virginia, North Dakota and Kentucky.

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Today, we identify schools that are committed to offering computer science instruction to their students but can't find enough appropriately trained teachers to provide this instruction. We then work with the school administration, guidance counselors and teachers to develop a plan for offering first period CS classes. After a 100-hour, 12-week long summer training program taught by me and other professional educators, these volunteers begin their workdays by heading into the classroom to co-teach with certificated classroom teachers.

It's a symbiotic relationship in which classroom teachers help our volunteers hone their instructional abilities, and our volunteers provide state-of-the-art content knowledge and help build the classroom teacher's capacity to teach computer science.

Half of our TEALS volunteers have graduate degrees, and 70 percent come from the top 20 CS programs in the country--places like UC Berkeley, Brown and MIT. Equally important, given the demographics of the technology industry, 25 percent of our volunteers are women or underrepresented minorities--figures well above tech industry employment averages. Seeing industry professionals who look like them in the classroom provides real-world inspiration to young people who traditionally have not pursued technology careers.

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Even more exciting is that three schools have now "graduated" from the TEALS program and offer full-scale computer science programs to their students. …