Just four in 10 schools in the U.S. offer a computer science course, according to Code.org.
When Sierra Acy was in high school she knew she was interested in computer science. Luckily, her high school was an exception in the U.S.— it offered computer science courses. “I took Intro Computer Science and the following year I took AP Computer Science,” Acy says.
Early on at Disney, Acy heard about a volunteer program where people working in the tech industry could go into high schools and help teach computer science courses, giving students a chance to interact with people who actually use the content they’re teaching every day and to help classroom teachers gain better understanding of the subject matter to improve the computer science offerings in the future. She leapt at the chance.
“During my high school experience, neither of the computer science courses I took were as well done or put together as they could have been,” she says. “As is the case a lot of the time, the teachers weren’t actually trained in the computer science industry or any of the technical aspects of the field, they were just kind of put into the position and told to go.”
Women who try AP Computer Science in high school are 10 times more likely to major in it in college, according to a 2007 research study by the College Board.
Acy is now volunteering approximately 10 hours a week, along with a small team of others at Disney, to co-teach the AP Computer Science course at Walla Walla High School in southeastern Washington through the TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) program.
Kevin Wang founded TEALS in 2009. At the time, he had been volunteering part time as a computer science teacher at a Seattle high school in addition to his work as an engineer at Microsoft. “When I was sent to a College Board AP Computer Science workshop, I expected to meet a lot of other AP Computer Science teachers with a similar background to my own, but I was shocked to find that most of the other teachers were not computer science people at all. I was maybe the only computer science major there, the rest of these teachers had about four days to learn a college semester’s worth of computer science well enough to teach it, which is incredibly tough.”
Wang knew there were plenty of other computer science folks like him in the industry who could help these teachers, and students, have a more effective educational experience. So he decided to do something about it. Today, Wang runs TEALS full time, funded by Microsoft’s philanthropy arm. They’re operating in 348 schools in 29 different states and Washington, D.C. Here in Washington State, TEALS is partnered with 86 schools — that’s 10 percent of all Washington high schools.
Wang suggests that the reach is even further than those numbers suggest since the program is modeled to help get classroom teachers prepared to teach computer science on their own after two years of co-teaching with volunteers who know the material by heart.
That kind of reach is significant for a few reasons. First, computer science education in the United States is lacking. Projections show that there will be 1.4 million computer science-related jobs in the U.S. by 2020, but the number of college graduates with computer science degrees in the U.S. will be enough to fill only one-third of those. Just four in 10 schools in the U.S. even offer a computer science course, according to Code.org. And, in an economy where many industries are shrinking, the tech field offers well-paid opportunities.
Tony Vigil, a senior software engineer at Disney who volunteers in the same classroom with Acy, says industry volunteers allow students to better understand how computer science skills are used in the workplace. Vigil spent extra time on that subject during a recent in-person visit to the Walla Walla school (most of their teaching is done remotely via Skype). “We were able to dispel some of those stereotypes, like that working in this field means sitting at a computer by yourself. I think that was helpful,” he says.
And, Vigil says, in some ways they’re able to understand this work better than he might have at their age. “I graduated from high school in 1991, and back then actual software development was so much further removed from the people using it. Now what the kids are learning in class is so much more tangible, any one of them could use what they learn to push their own website out or make a mobile app.”
Vigil, Acy and Saurabh Prabhakar, a software engineer at Disney who volunteers with them, all agreed this makes it easier to get the kids excited about what they’re learning. They only wish that more kids were given the opportunity to learn computing skills even earlier.
“Programming should really be taught at the same time as you’re teaching someone math, because the ideas of basic logic are the same you use in programming,” says Prabhakar. “Because at this point, regardless of what your interests in for your future career, you need to know some software, programming is in every single industry now, from digital arts to music to actual computer science. The earlier you learn, the more you know the more leverage you’ll have in those markets.”
This week, this group of volunteers will get the opportunity to see how that earlier learning might look. On their second in-person visit to Walla Walla High School, they’ll be taking their class over to the local middle school. “We’ll have our students help teach the younger students how to code and make games for the Hour of Code Computer Science Education week, which should be pretty cool,” says Acy.
TEALS relies on industry volunteers to help bring computer science to high schools across the U.S. The volunteer application process for the 2018/2019 school year opens soon. Learn more about how to volunteer and be notified when the application process opens.