Thoughts on the TEALS High School Computer Science Field Trip

I had the good fortune on Friday to kick off the TEALS Computer Science Field Trip at AOL’s Northern Virginia campus, which hosted 200 students from seven local high schools.  It was a great day, led by remarks from James LaPlaine, AOL’s VP of Technology Operations (and me).  The event consisted of several sessions where industry experts shared their experiences and expertise on computer science and technology. Following these sessions, students participated in an opportunity fair that helped them to see the real world application of computer science and what opportunities exist.  I really enjoyed it – and the feedback from the students was very good, as well.

The trip was coordinated under the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program, which is part of Microsoft's YouthSpark initiative.  In a nutshell, TEALs is a program that places volunteer technology professionals in schools with two goals: help teach computer science, and to inspire the students to pursue science and technology education (and ultimately, careers).  The volunteers work with teachers to assist with curriculum and lesson delivery, and they also provide outside perspective based on their industry experience.

TEALS started near Redmond, Washington (Microsoft's corporate HQ) in 2009 at one school, reaching a total of 12 students.  This year, there are TEALS programs running in 7 states covering 35 schools, reaching over 1500 students.  We've been running pilots here in Northern Virginia and DC at six schools (DC includes Marshall Charter School, Friendship Charter School, and Virginia includes Wakefield High School, Broad Run High School, Stone Bridge High School, and Park View High School).

I’m particularly close to TEALS, as I’m one of the volunteers in the program (I helped out in the AP Computer Science class at Stone Bridge).  The reason I volunteered is simple: I work with many technology companies in my role at Microsoft, and I see, first hand, the challenges that the tech industry has in finding and hiring qualified, talented employees.  There simply aren’t enough candidates to meet the needs of the industry – and causes immense friction for economic growth, from the largest company to startups just looking to get off the ground.  I see this problem as clear as day – and I want to do something about it.

Here’s the odd thing: Computer Science and Computer Engineer graduates consistently top the lists in job placement and starting salaries.  Many notable startup stories are rooted in technology, it’s rare to find anyone who doesn’t know the names Gates, Jobs, Brin, and Zuckerberg (and recently, David Karp).  In addition, students today are completely immersed in technology – computers, mobile devices, perpetual internet access.  Technology is as natural to most students as eating and breathing.  Despite this, the number of students pursuing degrees in computer science (or similar) is still extremely small compared to other disciplines, and falls far short of industry needs. 

At current rates, it is projected that there will be approximately 1M unfilled jobs requiring computer technology skills by 2018.  Another stunning fact: In 2012, only about 24,000 students in the United States out of some 14 million took the Computer Science Advanced Placement test. This number represents only 0.69 percent of all AP tests taken that year (and the percentage of girls who take the test is mind-bogglingly small).  With so much demand and so much opportunity, one would think that students would be stampeding into Computer Science.  Why aren’t they?

In my opinion, one of the key factors is that we (adults, industry leaders, society as a whole) are not doing a good enough job fostering students’ passion for technology.  We’ve been content to let them be technology consumers, and haven’t instilled the desire to be technology creators.  The world needs creators.

On top of that, there has always been a stigma that CS is “only for boys” and that it can be difficult and boring… this perception lingers and grows as long as we fail to address and try to change it by exposing students to the amazing things that they can do with technology.  This realization is strikingly clear when you look at the lack of diversity in computer science classes where females typically represent a very small minority, and ethnic minorities, especially African American and Hispanic students, who represent an even smaller sliver. 

Unfortunately, many schools have tremendous challenges that have prevented them from making computer science a higher priority, so teachers don’t get the opportunity to lead the students down this road.  Without strong mandates from the States for computer science achievement, schools often are unable to invest in computer science teachers and resources.  Thus, opportunities for students to pursue CS are uncommon, and the demand to hire and train CS teachers is stunted.

TEALS addresses part of this problem by enabling industry professionals to help schools and teachers educate students on computer science, and to inspire the students to pursue technology in their future.  With that help, more schools and teachers will be able to reach a greater number of students, and more students will enroll in technology disciplines in college, which will lead to more qualified graduates for the industry.  It’s a nice, virtuous cycle where everybody wins.

I’m especially passionate about the potential in this geography (Northern VA, DC, and MD), as we have the perfect storm of very strong schools, amazing teachers, very smart students, and a huge presence of technology companies of all sizes.  In addition, several of the best universities in the country are sitting right in our communities, and we have the visibility and access to leaders and policymakers via our nation’s capital, conveniently and uniquely located directly in our back yard. 

All of the ingredients for national technology and economic leadership are here – but it all starts with our students (which means our schools).  I believe that enabling them to become leaders in computer science and technology will provide benefits for a generation, locally and nationally.   We need to capitalize on this opportunity not only for the sake of the students, but for the benefit of the entire regional economy.  Everyone has a stake in this future: local businesses, investors, policymakers, teachers, parents, students, you name it… so we’re all responsible for investing in this success (time, money, support, etc.)

Programs like TEALS, and events like Friday’s field trip, are great examples of what individuals and businesses can do – and I’m proud and honored to be a part of them.  There is much more to be done, and we’re always looking for new ideas and more support.  If you’re interested, feel free to send me a message (below), and you can find out more on the TEALS web site: