Technology Education and Literacy in SchoolsBy Rachael Apfel
For recent college graduates, finding a job in the 21st century is often easier said than done — the economy has been slow, there are daunting unemployment figures, and competition is tough. And yet, at a time when many grads are struggling to find job openings, the computer science industry is struggling to fill them.
Based on recent projections, says Kevin Wang, Ed.M.’06, there will be about 150,000 computing job openings each year through 2020. However, fewer than 40,000 American students, on average, receive bachelor’s degrees in computer science each year, meeting only a fraction of the need of high tech companies. Why the disconnect? According Wang, the problem can be traced back to high school computer science programs, which have failed to keep pace.
“Because so few students graduate from U.S. schools with degrees in computer science, the pay is quite good at tech companies, with a starting salary averaging about $90,000 for a 22-year-old graduate,” Wang explains. “So it is really hard for high schools to compete in the same talent pool for the same people when they try to recruit teachers to teach a computer science program.” Consequently, only about 8,000 high schools in the America education system offer computer science programs, and only 2,100 offer computer science courses at an AP level. As a matter of fact, out of the millions of AP tests taken in the United States last year, only about 0.7 percent of those were in computer science.
At a time when five of the top 10 fastest growing jobs are in computer-related fields and two of the top three bachelor’s salaries are in computer science and engineering, Wang argues that this scarcity of computer science teachers is a major problem in the United States. As a computer science graduate himself, Wang was faced with choice between teaching and taking a job at a tech firm, and understands that choosing to take a big pay cut to teach may not serve as a huge attraction for some. Though he did teach computer science for a few years after graduating from UC Berkeley, after completing the Technology, Innovation, and Education (TIE) Program at HGSE, Wang took a job with Microsoft. However, when a local Seattle school needed a computer science teacher a few years ago, Wang decided that the choice between a big tech firm and a teaching job did not have to be mutually exclusive.
“I had a job at Microsoft that I wasn’t going to quit in order to teach,” he recalls. “But I didn’t have to be at work until 10 or 11 a.m., so I thought, why not do both?”
And that is exactly what he did. After coordinating with the school, Wang had the computer science class moved to first period so that he could teach in the morning before heading to Microsoft. As soon as other local schools caught wind of what he was doing, they all wanted in.
“Before I knew it other schools in the area were on the phone, calling to see if I could help them out and come teach for them as well,” he says. “And as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t be everywhere at once.”
But that did not stop him from helping out where he could. As a result, Wang founded TEALS — Technology Education And Literacy in Schools — a grassroots, employee-driven program that recruits, mentors, and places high-tech professionals who are passionate about computer science education into high school classes as part-time teachers. Much more than “a bunch of industry people teaching a class in their spare time,” Wang explains that the TEALS program is a highly organized team-teaching model implemented in school districts that are unable to meet their students’ computer science needs on their own.
The goal of the TEALS program is to build sustainable computer science programs in schools over the course of 2 to 3 years. This is achieved through a progressive system, in which in-service teachers learn alongside the kids for a two semesters, as industry professionals — who were trained in the summer — teach the class. In the third semester, TEALS evolves into a coteaching program, and, finally, during the fourth semester, the industry professional takes on the role of a “teaching assistant” as the reigns are handed over to the in-service teacher, who will eventually be completely independent.
“Think of it as everyday professional development,” Wang says. “The kids and the in-service teacher learn a lot about the technical side of things from the industry expert who, in turn, is learning about things on the educational side.”
Starting as a program that Wang organized and coordinated in his spare time, it was not until last year that the development and expansion of TEALS became a full-time job. “I was very fortunate that the VP of my division [at Microsoft] heard about the program and took me to see our divisional president,” he says. “When the president heard about what I was doing, he suggested that I make it a full-time effort, developing the TEALS program as a nonprofit project that is incubated and grown within Microsoft.”
With all of his energy now being channeled into the program, Wang has made great strides over the past year, and the TEALS program has expanded into 37 schools across eight different states reaching about 2,000 students — 300 of whom are AP computer science students. And for Wang, this is just the beginning. With schools from all over the country showing interest and contacting him to ask how they can join TEALS, the ultimate vision for Wang would be to make sure that there is some sort of computer science program in every American high school.
But of course, there is still a lot to learn. “Growing an organization that is volunteer-based is a unique experience and we are still figuring out the best ways to scale,” Wang says. “But the environment in the TIE Program at the Ed School really encouraged me to think outside the box, and those interdisciplinary experiences in the classroom at HGSE and as a teaching fellow at MIT, and on the ground, combined with my engineering and business background, have really prepared me to approach any problem and come up with a workable solution.”