Microsoft employee Kevin Wang is a rare person in the computer science industry. He graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, then studied education at Harvard and became a teacher in the Bay Area, building and teaching a computer science curriculum for grades 7 through 12.
In 2009, that background led him to found TEALS, which stands for Technology Education And Literacy in Schools. The unique program turns computer science vets into part-time volunteer teachers, working with existing faculty to teach CS in high schools — many of which otherwise wouldn’t be teaching the subject, at least not in a meaningful way.
“There’s just a huge black hole in computer science,” says Wang, a 32-year-old resident of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, describing the issue as critical to the country’s long-term competitiveness.
In fact, he was ready to leave Microsoft to run TEALS — going so far as to sell his beloved Porsche 911 to fund the project — before the company asked him to stay on as an employee to run the program full-time inside Microsoft.
For the upcoming school year, TEALS will have 120 volunteer computer science teachers in 37 schools across eight states, including Washington, Kentucky, California, Virginia, Utah, Washington, D.C., Minnesota and North Dakota. Many of the volunteers fit the teaching into their schedules by spending time at a local school before heading into work.
The program isn’t limited to Microsofties, and includes employees of other tech companies. (See this page for contact info if you’re in the industry and interested in volunteering.)
Meet our newest Geek of the Week. Continue reading for his responses to our questionnaire.
What do you do, and what does it mean to you?
I founded and run TEALS (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools). It is a program that recruits, trains, mentors and places high tech professionals in high schools that are unable to meet Computer Science needs on their own in a team teaching model with existing in-classroom teachers.
The lack of CS classes in American high schools is a huge problem. Nationwide, only 0.6% of Advanced Placement tests taken last year were for CS and the numbers have actually been in decline since the late 90’s. It’s a silent Sputnik moment that really affects where we will be as a country in terms of innovation and technology leadership. I want to do my part to fix it.
How has your experience in the tech industry shaped your approach to education, and vice versa?
Having been on the ground teaching, in academia both on the CS side and the education side plus industry, it really gave me a unique view of all three. Taking all of it in and seeing the needs and strengths of students, teachers, administrators, schools, college professors, academics, industry, and industry professionals gave me the model for TEALS.
Why did you start TEALS, and what are your long-term goals for the program?
Two long-term goals are pretty simple:
- Making sure every high school student in America has the opportunity to take intro and AP CS class in school.
- Match the percentage of AP students of the other 3 big sciences: Physics, Chemistry and Biology.
TEALS initially started when I started teaching 1st period CS at a local school on the way to work. Word got around, and schools that didn’t have CS wanted clones of me to start CS programs at their schools. Sort of grew out of control from there on out.
It is so incredibly important for high school students to be exposed to CS just like biology, chemistry and physics before college. Not everyone will become a Computer Scientist, but everyone should be technology literate coming out of high school no matter where they end up. Technology surrounds us today, and students take physical science classes so they understand the physical world around them, it is just as important that they have the opportunity to take CS to understand the technological world that they interact with every day.
What’s the biggest secret to the success of the program so far?
To be honest, it is successful because it is filling a huge need out there that is not being met, and the TEALS model just works so well for schools, teachers, and everyday high tech professionals.
Schools get help starting a sustainable CS program. In-classroom teachers without a CS background are able to team-teach CS classes while learning CS, and eventually to teach CS classes rest of the school day on their own. The TEALS teachers do not have to quit their high paying industry jobs, and they get to learn how to teach through TEALS summer training and from the in-classroom teacher.
We get an amazing pool of talented people who really want to give back to their communities in their area of expertise. Out of our teachers and TAs this year, 2/3 comes from a top 20 CS program and 1/3 have graduate degrees. We’re talking about devoting 300+ hours of their lives per year, and aside from teaching, doing the thing that CS people hate the most, getting up early.
Where do you find your inspiration?
It’s really all about the students we reach day in and day out in the classrooms. We started off in the school I taught at, then to four, then 13 schools last year, and this fall, 37 schools in 8 states reaching 2,000 students with 300 of them taking the AP CS test (that’s 25 more than the entire state of WA in 2010).
I also cannot say enough about our TEALS teachers, they work hard over the summer to train and prepare for the school year and then put in just an astonishing amount of hours to make their classes a success. They are the Computer Scientist role models that the students get to see every day in class.
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why?
It has to be the GPS, without it, I’d be still driving around middle of nowhere Germany for the past 10 years trying to figure out how to get to Frankfurt International.
It’s a dual use space. My office also serves as the TEALS teaching material and student swag warehouse.
[Here are Kevin's notes on the office picture, left to right.]
- The dev machine with the JAVA book and Kinect is for trying out new things. The dual screen is the work machine/laptop.
- Gold Fish, sneaking out of the bookshelf because I’m still in 6th grade.
- Fan of racing, with Red Bull F1 racing and Dale Jr NASCAR hats.
- Map of MSFT campus in case I need to figure out where I am going.
- Blue picture is Monza (F1 track in Italy), unseen above is a Porsche poster of the 911 I no longer have.
- Storage, and over flow storage of CS books given to teachers. Student swag in the cabinets. Amazon boxes.
- Round table has colored notebooks in which I track all of the TEALS schools and their progress.
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) A nice pilsner at the end of a long day. In a town full of IPAs and really dark beers, it’s surprisingly hard to find.
Mac, Windows or Linux? I miss the days of DOS when I had to manage conventional memory, extended memory, and expanded memory to just make a game like Ace of the Pacific work. Man, I used to have a lot of free time when I was a kid.
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine, I want to see me some dinosaurs with my 5th grader self. He’d be super excited.
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … That will have to wait until goals of TEALS are met. Probably getting something like the Forza driving line assist feature into real cars for track days and every day driving.
I once waited in line for … Getting into the Raveonettes show.
Your role models: My high school biology and world history teachers, they showed me what a great teacher can do.
Greatest Game In History: Answering these definitely makes me realize that I am a child of the 90’s. Three-way tie between X-Wing, Dune 2, and Day of the Tentacle.
Best Gadget Ever: The DVR, how else would I be able to watch all those VH1 countdown shows?
First computer: 286 12 Mhz with a huge 40MB hard drive and an EGA card. First Mac was the Cube, still at my parents’ house.
Current phone: Nokia Lumia 800. Waiting for the 7.8 upgrade for the smaller tiles so there’s a bit more information density on the home screen.
Favorite app: The weather app on my Lumia. I need to know if I need a jacket that day.
Favorite hangout: All of Ballard.
Favorite cause: Aside from TEALS? UNICEF.
Most important technology of 2012: Tablets, tablets, tablets, tablets.
Most important technology of 2015: Watson level personal assistant for everyone.
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: To quote Oscar Wilde – Life is too important to be taken seriously.
Your site: www.tealsk12.org.
Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.
Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to email@example.com.