“How much money do you make?”
The question took Rohan Pal by surprise. Sure, he’d offered to answer questions – any question – about computer science. Clearly the taboo against discussing salaries didn’t register for the 22 students in this Austin computer science class.
Pal, CTO and CIO of the information management company Recall, and another volunteer videoconference in to this class from Atlanta. They co-teach with the course’s instructor, Julia Barraford-Temel, and train her in the foundations of computer science.
Together, they make up just one classroom in TEALS. The initiative was founded by a Microsoft employee, Kevin Wang, seven years ago, but it is powered by volunteers who come from more than 200 companies in the tech industry. And together, they are helping build sustainable computer science programs in schools that will continue to thrive even after volunteers move on.
Back in the Austin classroom, Pal sidestepped. “Well how much do you think you could earn after studying computer science?” Then he explained that young professionals just out of college could earn up to $100,000 a year.
The revelation was met with blank stares. After a moment, a young man asked, “How much is that an hour?” Once Pal translated that figure into an hourly wage, the students were dumbstruck. Many of their parents made less than $10 an hour, they said.
“That’s when it hit me,” Pal remembers. “I’m not giving them just a skill set. I’m giving them a way of life to not only help themselves but their parents and grandparents today and generations of children and grandchildren after them.”
Austin Achieve illustrates a common problem in the United States school system: Computer science teachers and classes are hard to come by. That means fewer young people go on to study computer science in college, resulting in fewer professionals ready to fill the many openings in the industry. Microsoft is infusing $75 million dollars into its YouthSpark programs (one of which is TEALS) in the next three years to train teachers and bring computer science education to even more youth.
Much like other schools across the country, Austin Achieve faces steep challenges. More than 90 percent of the tuition-free public charter school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – a way to measure families living in poverty – and many are recent immigrants from Latin America. And despite Austin’s thriving tech industry, Austin Achieve struggled to develop a computer science program on its own.
When students in this East Austin school began the course, many of them didn’t know how to save a computer file or write an email. “Now they’re making code as individual as they are,” Barraford-Temel says.
And so is she. Barraford-Temel taught English in Turkey until accepting a job at Austin Achieve. “I was kind of thrown into teaching computer science, and I felt a lot of apprehension when I found out I’d be teaching tech,” she says now. She had always liked technology but had never written a program. “But the whole experience is life changing. I have fallen in love with computer science on this adventure with my students and volunteers.”
That passion plays out every day as she instructs 250 students in the basics of computer science (and learns alongside them). In addition to the ten sections she teaches, including the one she co-teaches with volunteers, she hosts help sessions twice a week for the kids who need additional instruction – or translation to their native Spanish.
Sometimes help comes from peers. “I was totally confused,” 9th grader Jessica Loya remembers about starting the introduction to computer science course. But TEALS is designed to catch these students before they fall through the cracks, and Jessica sought additional advice from Barraford-Temel after school.
In the coming days, Jessica noticed a classmate wrestling with the same concepts that had stumped her. Jessica, who also plays soccer and sports bright green and blue hair, explained what she had just recently understood – and to her surprise, her friend had a eureka moment, too. “It made me feel helpful and proud because after I was able to get it together, I could help other students who were struggling, too,” she says.
These break-through moments have prompted a career shift for Barraford-Temel. “I always have teaching English to fall back on, but TEALS has changed my long-term life plan. I’m taking courses, getting certified through the Texas Alliance for Computer Education, and I want to teach AP computer science,” she says. “Teaching computer science is something I’m really passionate and excited about, and it’s something students really need.”
What’s more, TEALS classes can change the course of students’ lives. “If one of our students could graduate from university with a career in computer science, it could lift their entire family out of poverty,” Barraford-Temel adds. “A real ripple effect is possible.”
Most days, students are thinking about the zeroes and ones that make their self-made video games run, not about the number of zeroes that come at the end of their future salary. Yet even if they aren’t focused on money, the time they spend in this class is earning them opportunities.
“I was looking for something where I could give back, that I could get passionate about every day, where I could feel it was having an impact,” Pal remembers. “That is what TEALS is for me.”