A Microsoft software engineer has launched an innovative computer science program that’s connecting volunteers from the high-tech industry with local students.
Kevin Wang worked as a computer science teacher before coming to after graduate school and said he missed teaching after he left the profession. After a couple of years at Microsoft, Wang realized that a typical trait of high-tech work—“Very few people come in to work before 10 a.m.,” he says—created an opportunity for him to volunteer to teach a computer science class in the morning before heading into his job at Microsoft’s Redmond campus.
“With all the schools around that need computer science teachers, I realized there’s a huge opportunity,” he said.
A successful beginning
Wang, who lives in Ballard, taught a morning computer science class at University Prep, and the experience went so well that when additional school districts approached him about the possibility of teaching, he hatched a plan to expand the program, now called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS), and started enlisting volunteers.
Last year, the program pilot included 10 volunteer teachers who taught at four high schools: Issaquah High School, Ballard High School, Cleveland High School and Nathan Hale High School.
After a rousing success last year that included increasing participation in the state’s Computer Science AP test by 5 percent, the program has been expanded to 13 area schools, including three high schools in the : Lake Washington, Juanita and Eastlake.
This year 36 industry professional volunteers (including 30 Microsoft employees) are teaching computer science classes to 740 teens. More than 60 of those teens are taking AP computer science courses, and Wang said he hopes the added enrollment will result in an increase of 20 percent more students taking AP science tests in Washington this spring.
Each of the volunteers agrees to a one-year commitment and go through extensive training on pedagogy and classroom management with Wang over the summer. When they enter the classroom, teaching classes such as Intro to Computer Science or AP Computer Science, each volunteer teacher signs a contract with the district and a certificated instructor oversees the class.
The setup enables industry professionals to participate in the program without having to get a teaching certificate, Wang said. Another bonus, he said, is that regular classroom teachers can learn along with the students so they can potentially teach the courses in the future.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for everyone involved,” Wang said.
The volunteers say they get a lot out of the program, too.
“It’s amazing when you see a kid get it,” says Rubaiyat Khan, an MIT-educated Microsoft program manager who is teaching computer science at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland. Khan says she has always been interested in teaching, and enjoys having the opportunity to be a role model for girls as they consider future careers, too.
“One thing I like is that girls see us teaching. We need more role models,” of people—both men and women—with successful computer industry careers in schools so students see that as a viable option for themselves, Khan says. “I felt that teachers were distant from the industry when I was in school.”
Corinne Pascale who works on Office 365 and is teaching at Juanita High School in Kirkland, says she likes being able to relate the value of computer science education to the careers many of her students envision for themselves, such as military careers or forest service fields. Pascale said she also benefits from the program because she gets to sharpen her communication skills by relaying technical information to students in a way they can understand.
“I was losing my ability to talk, like with my parents, in a non-technical way," she said. "If I can explain to a 16-year-old what a recursive loop is” that helps.
Wang wants to keep the focus of the program on improving computer science education for schools that want and need it but can’t compete with the salaries offered to such workers in the tech industry.
“It’s been kind of a guerilla operation,” he says. “Schools want computer science programs, but they can’t do it on their own. The administrations love our teachers.”
This year, the districts could receive an added benefit, as TEALS is now a recognized beneficiary of Microsoft’s corporate giving program. Though the teachers don’t get matching grants from the company for the hours they are in the classroom because they technically get paid via a stipend (about $2,500 a year) for every hour in classroom, they volunteer outside the class in prep time and training, and Microsoft matches that in-kind donation at $17 an hour.
Outside of needed supplies, those donations will go back into the school districts, Wang said. And this month, during Microsoft’s giving campaign, other Microsoft employees also can make donations to TEALS, which the company will match.
Wang said he hopes to keep expanding the program because he believes it’s a good model, but its quick success has changed his role somewhat this year. He now spends his time supervising the program and training the high-tech teachers, so he is not teaching a classroom this year himself.
Even so, Wang said he’s been very encouraged by the great response from his colleagues and local school districts.
“This is a need we can meet,” he said.