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Computer science education advocate helps students chart a better future

“We are far from done.” It’s those five words that Kevin Wang will weave into a conversation repeatedly, just in case you might have missed them the first time. Or the second. Or the third.

The founder of TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools), a program supported by Microsoft YouthSpark, Wang has the kind of determination and laser focus it takes to succeed. And succeeding he is, perhaps because of proclamations like the one above.

Last week, Wang was named to Fortune’s “Heroes of the 500” list, one of 55 Fortune 500 company employees recognized for their “remarkable acts of goodness” and inspiration.

In typical Wang fashion, he says the real heroes are “all of the TEALS volunteers from across industry” who, combined, have “invested a quarter of a million hours in building sustainable computer science programs in our high schools.”

TEALS places volunteer computer scientists into classrooms around the country to teach computer science.

Volunteers come from more than 100 companies – among them Etsy, Amazon, The New York Times, as well as from Microsoft. The volunteers essentially bungee-jump into a classroom for a year to two years, teaching an Introduction to Computer Science class in person, or by using Skype.

It’s not only the students who learn, but the teachers as well, so that at the end of the second year they’re knowledgeable enough to teach students basic computer science without the help of volunteers. There are plenty of teachers and students who need to learn, but not enough volunteers. More are needed for the 2015-2016 school year, especially in New York City, San Francisco and Phoenix.

A 2013 study by Code.org found that 90 percent of U.S. high schools don’t teach computer science. And, with software engineers and computer scientists in demand by private industry, most schools can’t compete when it comes to salaries.

Kevin Wang started TEALS by himself. There are hundreds of volunteers, but more are needed. Photo courtesy of Kevin Wang.
Kevin Wang started TEALS by himself. There are hundreds of volunteers, but more are needed. Photo courtesy of Kevin Wang.

Into this daunting gap came Wang, a software engineer-turned-teacher-turned-software engineer whose desire to help students started when he was a tutor in high school. That desire not only continued, but grew during college when he taught computer science to youngsters at Stanford University summer programs.

“Teaching and helping others has always been in my makeup for some reason,” he says. “My parents immigrated from Shanghai in China to the U.S. when I was in the fourth grade, so that I would have more educational and other opportunities. This country has always given me a lot, and I think it’s important to give back.”

After graduating with a degree in both electrical engineering and in computer science from UC Berkeley, Wang created a computer science curriculum that he taught for three years at a San Francisco, Bay Area-high school. Then he went back to the classroom himself, getting a graduate degree in education from Harvard.

He was interested in how technology was used for “synchronous and asynchronous remote teaching,” and eventually came to Microsoft in 2006. But the desire, and the drive, to teach computer science, remained.

When a Seattle-area private school contacted him about teaching a class, he was happy to do it, from 7:50 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., on his way into work. Then Seattle Public Schools and the Issaquah School District called on him. Could he help them, too?

He started rounding up volunteers, and called the program TEALS. By the 2011-2012 school year, it was in 13 schools and Wang was overseeing 35 volunteers. He considered quitting Microsoft, and starting a nonprofit organization to manage TEALS because “I couldn’t do it in my spare time anymore.”

He prepared a resignation letter, and sold his beloved Porsche, planning to live off the proceeds as he got started with the new nonprofit. But before he resigned, Wang’s boss urged him to meet and talk with another boss about what he was doing and the value of TEALS.

That boss was Satya Nadella, then executive vice president of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise group (and now CEO). Nadella agreed that the program was important.

Nadella also told Wang that if he left to start TEALS on his own, he’d likely spend most of his time trying to raise money instead of doing what he did best – working with the schools, working with volunteers, students and teachers and getting computer science into more classrooms.

How about continuing to oversee TEALS full-time, but with it being under Microsoft’s wing? Nadella asked Wang. He was thrilled.

“And because Microsoft supported it, we were able to go from those 13 schools, to 35, to 70, to 131 high schools across 18 states, plus the District of Columbia,” he says.

THIS TEALS growth by school year

TEALS is offered in urban areas, as well as more rural settings, including places like Morgan County, Kentucky, where a little over three years ago a tornado killed six people and destroyed much of downtown West Liberty.

Morgan County had already been hurting before disaster struck, as the 67th poorest county by median household income in the U.S. Two of the area’s leading economic drivers, coal mining and tobacco, have been in a downward spiral.

Nathan Frederick understood that the place where he was from needed to find other ways to help its young people be successful. And TEALS is one program that’s giving them that opportunity, he says.

Technology center teacher Nathan Frederick with students from the TEALS Intro to Computer Science class at the Morgan County Area Technology Center in Kentucky. Photo by Mike Kane.
Technology center teacher Nathan Frederick with students from the TEALS Intro to Computer Science class at the Morgan County Area Technology Center in Kentucky. Photo by Mike Kane.

Frederick teaches classes in subjects like Web design, networking and PC repair at the state-funded Morgan County Area Technology Center, where the TEALS class was given. He says he hadn’t done programming since college, and with the help of TEALS volunteers, “was learning with the students pretty much.”

The three volunteers who taught the class this past school year were “extremely knowledgeable and patient,” he says. “They have been a very valuable resource.”

In Morgan County, having TEALS meant that 15-year-old Nick Stacy, who likes astronomy and math, got to explore a new universe that he had been eager to know more about for a long time.

“I wanted to learn more about computers, how they work,” he says. “I want to get a job that has something to do with what I’m interested in, like computers. I’ve always have been interested in them. I just didn’t have much experience.”

Nick does not have a computer at home. He uses the one at his grandmother’s house. Until he took the TEALS class this year, he mainly used computers for doing schoolwork, watching YouTube and playing games.

High school student Nick Stacy during a session of the daily Introduction to Computer Science class at the Morgan County Area Technology Center. Photo by Mike Kane.
High school student Nick Stacy during a session of the daily Introduction to Computer Science class at the Morgan County Area Technology Center. Photo by Mike Kane.

Nick and seven other students made up the center’s first TEALS class, with three volunteer computer scientists from Microsoft teaching it.

The volunteers, Will Barr, Michael Pridal-LoPiccolo and Brendan Walker, based in Washington state, flew to Kentucky last fall to meet with the students, so they could get a chance to know them and Frederick in person before assuming their online roles via Skype and some 2,455 miles away.

All TEALS volunteers use UC Berkeley’s curriculum for Introduction to Computer Science for teaching the classes.

Pridal-LoPiccolo, a software engineer in the Operating Systems Group, starts his workday about an hour early to team-teach. He wanted to be a TEALS volunteer, he says, because he feels “passionately” about the need for computer science education.

“It’s a really big problem that you’re chipping away at, so it’s hard to feel like you’re solving it,” he says. “But watching these eight young adults work through things is really rewarding. Seeing somebody not understand and keep trying, and then get there – the moment you can see when the light bulb turns on is really cool to watch. It has been rewarding to watch them grow,” as it has been watching Frederick learn, as well.

TEALS volunteer teacher Michael Pridal-LoPiccolo of Microsoft, second from left on the screen, during a session with students in Morgan County, Kentucky. Photo by Mike Kane.
TEALS volunteer teacher Michael Pridal-LoPiccolo of Microsoft, second from left on the screen, during a session with students in Morgan County, Kentucky. Photo by Mike Kane.

TEALS “is very clear, we’re not doing this because we think everyone needs to major in computer science,” Pridal-LoPiccolo says. “But in the same way we say everybody in high school should take biology, even though most people don’t become a doctor or a biology researcher, you take biology and chemistry and physics in high school because it’s part of being an informed citizen and knowing what’s going on in the world.”

Frederick says TEALS has been a “wonderful experience,” especially for the students. “It’s given them access to something they wouldn’t have had otherwise. And for at least one or two of them, it’s provided a possible career track that they may not have thought of before.”

Kevin Wang is gratified to know that, but not satisfied. “Tens of thousands of high schools across the country still do not have computer science classes for millions of American students,” he says.

Wang is far from done. But he’s making a heck of a dent.

Are you a computer scientist who’s interested in TEALS? Volunteers are needed. Learn more about the program and how to help.


Lead photo: “Teaching and helping others has always been in my makeup for some reason,” says TEALS founder Kevin Wang. Photo credit: Scott Eklund, Red Box Pictures