Albert Lee transitioned out of a job in supply chain analysis in the auto industry and is looking for work in data analysis; in the meantime, he volunteers four days a week at a Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) AP Computer Science class at Detroit’s Renaissance High School. TEALS relies on industry volunteers from more than 400 companies to co-teach CS with classroom educators and develop sustainable CS programs across the country. By sharing his nontraditional path of learning CS, Lee shows his 35 students that they can succeed in the tech industry—regardless of their background.
At first glance, I’m absolutely the wrong person to teach high schoolers computer science: I did terribly in my first computer science class, which I took as a freshman engineering student at the University of Michigan. I remember in particular one project, which I spent more than 30 hours working on—and I scored 15%.
Now that I volunteer in a TEALS AP Computer Science classroom, I tell my students that story. I laugh thinking about their expressions when I told them about that score: It was as if they were physically hurt because they could feel my pain. It’s probably not typical for teachers to share how poorly they did when taking the class’s subject in school, but my nontraditional path to computer science demonstrates to my students that failure isn’t permanent. In fact, messing up is part of the process of learning a subject like computer science.
After that first CS class, I vowed to avoid the subject at any cost. But later, when I was working as a supply chain analyst in the auto industry, I realized that much of my job could be automated using—you guessed it—computer science. So I went online and taught myself what I didn’t grasp as a freshman, and I ended up making my job much more efficient through coding.
I didn’t catch on to the benefits of computer science immediately, but you can bet I am 100% on-board now. I am living proof to my students that understanding and being able to use computer science can help in a whole range of careers.
What’s more, by sharing the story of my first (and dismal) experience with computer science, I reiterate that there’s reason why I’m good at what I do—and it’s not because I’m some genius. I’m successful because I spend the time banging my head against a wall figuring out how to do hard problems. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in debugging project or not understanding a concept the first time around.
About 85% of the students in my class say they’re comfortable and confident in computer science class, and nearly half plan to take more coding classes in the future. That bodes well for their future, considering the number of openings that require computer science skills.
Even for the ones that go on to do something unrelated to technology, computer science has taught them a growth mindset, where it’s ok to mess up. In our class, we’re constantly debugging projects, and that’s not because my students aren’t smart. Our students are used to finding and fixing issues in their code, and they’ll bring that nonjudgmental approach to their work no matter what they pursue.
I think my belief in them really matters. They know that they’ll end up facing some stigmas, having come from an urban community; plenty of people will be skeptical of their abilities, when, they’re lightyears ahead of where I was at their age. The average student in my class has written 4,000 lines of code this year, and my colleagues in the field are always blown away when I show them the projects they’ve created. That’s why it’s so important for me to tell them how much confidence I have in their ability to achieve whatever they want—in computer science and beyond.