For teens with autism, computer science creates opportunity

Volunteer working with student

A recent morning in Seattle began with rain—typical—but something much more unusual was happening in a school in Seattle’s University District. High schoolers leaned over the desks of middle school students, offering suggestions and encouragement as their younger peers blasted zombies and guided R2-D2 around obstacles. Rather than just playing video games, though, the teens were controlling the characters by writing instructions for them to follow.

“What I like about coding is it’s about creating something, whatever you want,” says Piper Colquitt, a student in the 7-8th grade class at the Academy for Precision Learning (APL), an inclusive school geared toward teaching students impacted by autism. “It’s your world so you can create it however you want. People don’t tell you what you can or can’t do.”

For Piper and her classmates who all have learning disabilities, bumping up against adults’ (and society’s) expectations can be a daily frustration. The difficulty translates into discouraging statistics: In the two years after high school, two-thirds of young people on the autism spectrum are unemployed and have no educational plans, according to a 2015 study. But many of these Seattle students have discovered that computer science is a natural complement to their skills and enthusiasm thanks to TEALS, the grassroots Microsoft Philanthropies-supported initiative that brings computer science (CS) education to schools nationwide. In their daily TEALS class, APL students are finding that creativity through technology offers freedom, fun and opportunities for a successful future.

Teens try out computer science

Piper and the other students in her class were led through coding tutorials by high schoolers and volunteer teachers from the school’s TEALS class. TEALS seeds CS programs in schools by matching technology professionals from over 400 companies with high school teachers. Over the course of a few years, volunteers not only instruct students on rigorous CS curricula and share insights about their own careers, but also train teachers to take over the class—thereby creating sustainable computer science programs for the school to continue independently.

The high schoolers were eager to show off the CS skills they’d learned in their TEALS class at APL, the first school of its kind to incorporate the program. They roamed the class, offering advice when the middle schoolers seemed stuck and appreciation when the succeeded. (“Woah, how’d you do that fire?” one student marveled.)

“My students absolutely loved the chance to go to the middle school classes and share the skills they have,” says Navya Prakash, a software development engineer at Amazon and a volunteer in the APL TEALS class. By pairing technology professionals like Prakash with a teacher, TEALS introduces students to adults working in the computer science field—many of whom end up being role models of what they, too, can achieve. “Putting students in a mentor role helped bring some of them out of their shell and even inspired them to continue on the computer science track.”

Students with autism discover CS career path

The morning that combined the TEALS and middle school classes was part of Hour of Code, a nationwide effort that introduces students to computer science. In addition to learning about programming from their peers, students came face to face with someone who proves a computer science career might be a possibility for them—autism and all. Katherine Hart, an engineer who joined Microsoft through a program that hires professionals on the autism spectrum, told the teens how she now works for one of the world’s leading technology companies. She got there not in spite of, but partly because of, her diagnosis.

“Helping teach kids with my disability enables me to give more toward kids who are not as fortunate as I was,” explains Hart, who first learned programming at 25 through online classes. “Today is a really good opportunity for them to start coding. The ability to code has become as much a necessity as reading, writing and typing.”

Roughly 80 percent of adults impacted by autism are unemployed, and Hart knows firsthand that computer science skills can offer unique opportunities. While she was between jobs, she took programming classes to develop her own skills—and pursue a passion she found in her 20s. “I really like being an inspiration,” Hart adds. “I didn’t have anyone like that to look up to.”

CS offers freedom, room to play

Prakash, the volunteer from Amazon, believes that many of the students in her high school computer science class wouldn’t have had the opportunity to dive into programming without the TEALS class. As she watches them thrive, reveling in their “aha!” moments when a coding concept clicks, she sees their “disability” as offering a unique advantage in the CS field.

“The students can get lost in this other world where nobody is asking them to display abilities they don’t have, and they rely on abilities they do have like logic and rational thinking,” she says. “With autism, reading emotions and dealing with subtlety may not come as easily to them as some other students. But the computer only knows logic. They identify with that.”

Back in the APL classroom, high schooler Ia Pixley helped another student try his hand at programming. Ia, who also plays the ukulele and wants to code a computer role-playing game someday, was surprised by how much she enjoyed teaching. For those who understand computer science, it’s no surprise: after all, computer science marks the spot where opportunity and fun intersect.

“It’s basically a sand box,” Ia said. “You can do anything.”


To learn more about volunteering through TEALS, visit: https://www.tealsk12.org/volunteers/

TEALS inspires rural teens to think big

Students Brenden DeLong, Stefanie Arredondo, Juan Zetina, and Hannah Gonzalez
Students Brenden DeLong, Stefanie Arredondo, Juan Zetina, and Hannah Gonzalez
It’s tough for high schoolers to get excited about anything at 8am. So Microsoft Azure program manager Silvia Doomra brought enough chocolate to go around when she met the 20 students in an introduction to computer science class she co-teaches.

Students working with TEALS volunteer via Skype
Students working with TEALS volunteer via Skype
To Doomra’s surprise, though, the Quincy High School teens were plenty enthusiastic even without the sugar boost. That morning was the first time they’d met her in person; they lit up to see her face-to-face instead of as the usual image projected on a screen while she video-conferenced into the class from her office at Microsoft.

Doomra is not your typical teacher. She and three other volunteers work closely with Mark Kondo, a Quincy High teacher with a background in business and marketing, to make sure these students – and all the ones to come after – are equipped to thrive in the 21st century.

Students Chad Sepulveda and Stefanie Arredondo
Students Chad Sepulveda and Stefanie Arredondo
Quincy is one of 161 schools from coast to coast participating in TEALS. The industry-wide movement, supported by Microsoft Philanthropies, pairs professionals who come from more than 200 companies nationwide with teachers at schools that otherwise wouldn’t be able to offer computer science classes. After a few years, teachers take over the class entirely, freeing up volunteers to help in other schools – and create even more self-sustaining computer science programs.

Like students in many rural high schools, Quincy’s youth didn’t get much exposure to computer science or STEM professionals. That’s why TEALS is making a concerted push to funnel volunteers from across the tech industry to bring programming to rural teachers and teens.

Students at this rural Eastern Washington high school, which sits mere blocks from the fields that sustain the agricultural community, at first seemed skeptical of the computer science class. But the teens have transformed over the course of just a few months – not only in their technical skills but also their attitudes about the future.

“As long as students leave the class without fear of computers and continue to not just be consumers of tech but can also create and be in control of what they produce, that will make them better at any career. They’ll be confident they’re better prepared for any job.”

– Juan Lema, software engineer, Microsoft Hololens

“Last semester, in my mind I was like, I don’t know how to program, and I’m not going to try,” remembers sophomore Hannah Gonzalez, who also plays softball and is on the cheerleading squad. “Then this semester something just clicked. Now I take notes, I study, and I make it fun.

“This summer, I’m going to miss programming.” The 15-year-old paused, then laughed. “I can’t believe I just said that!”

Students Abraham Calvillo, Stefanie Arredondo and Angel Bermudez
Students Abraham Calvillo, Stefanie Arredondo and Angel Bermudez

For the source of the shift, Doomra and Kondo point to a field trip to the Seattle Microsoft campus Doomra organized. The students piled into a yellow school bus for the three-hour drive. Many of them had barely left Quincy, let alone ventured into the sleek, modern buildings at a Fortune 50 company.

Doomra and Juan Lema, another remote volunteer and a software engineer at Microsoft Hololens, hosted a campus tour, then the teens then split off to shadow Microsoft employees. Some students attended high-level meetings or got a behind-the-scenes peek at developing technology.

Overall, the message was clear: Volunteers cared about these students from a small town nearly no one has heard of.

As Doomra says, “We are invested and ready to help them in their career.”

TEALS volunteers are impacting the career of teacher Mark Kondo, too. The TEALS course, still in its first year at Quincy, has been revolutionary for him and the school, he says.

Mr. Kondo and student Hannah Gonzalez
Mr. Kondo and student Hannah Gonzalez
“Number one, I have the support of programmers who do a great job working with kids, and number two, they are walking us through the programs,” he says. “It’s an amazing package put together for a classroom teacher who’s trying to learn.” Between the volunteers’ support and the TEALS curriculum, Kondo feels prepared – and inspired – every morning as his students eagerly practice Snap or Python.

The future-facing curriculum encourages the students to consider how the skills they’re learning influence more than just the grade they earn in class. “I hadn’t ever thought about what I wanted to do in the future until this year. We’re just a farming town, no one pursues computer science,” says Brendan Van Diest, a junior in the Quincy TEALS class. “When I made the decision to go into computer-related stuff it was because of exposure I’ve had through this class. I know this is something I could do for the rest of my life.”

TEALS volunteers are confident that no matter what path students pursue, the seeds they’ve planted will bear fruit in the future.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to help these guys achieve their goals,” Doomra says. “If I can do anything to make their life better, if they improve even one percent, I have changed the course of a life.”

“Number one, I have the support of programmers who do a great job working with kids, and number two, they are walking us through the programs. [TEALS] is an amazing package put together for a classroom teacher who’s trying to learn.”

-Mark Kondo, TEALS computer science teacher, Quincy High School
Students Hannah Gonzalez and Juan Zetina
Students Hannah Gonzalez and Juan Zetina

Computer science education develops a better future for families

TEALS Students and teacher in a classroom
Forefront: Alyssa Gonzalez, Serena Murphy, Carlos Trujillo Gonzalez, Victor Becerra Serrano
Back: Julia Barraford-Temel, Deoselin Castaneda Jimenes
“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.

Students working with TEALS volunteers via video conference
Students working with TEALS volunteers via video conference
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.”

Teacher Julia Barraford-Temel
Teacher Julia Barraford-Temel
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.

“The whole [TEALS] experience is life changing. I have fallen in love with computer science on this adventure with my students and volunteers.”

– Julia Barraford-Temel, TEALS computer science teacher, Austin Achieve

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.”

Students Ian Wood, Gonzalo Reyes, Odalys Contreras, Irvin Hernandez Flores
Students Ian Wood, Gonzalo Reyes, Odalys Contreras, Irvin Hernandez Flores
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.

Teacher Julia Barraford-Temel and student Cristobal Cruz
Teacher Julia Barraford-Temel and Student Cristobal Cruz
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.”

“I’m not giving [students] 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.”

– Rohan Pal, CTO and CIO, Recall Corp.
Students Serena Murphy, Ian Wood, Odalys Contreras
Students Serena Murphy, Ian Wood, Odalys Contreras

Computer science gives students the confidence they belong in the STEM world

Students Erkhes Batjargal, Matthew Morris, Navine Thompson, Adonis Bodzwa, Jamesey Exime
Students Erkhes Batjargal, Matthew Morris, Navine Thompson, Adonis Bodzwa, Jamesey Exime

One Saturday, Minh Nguyen was waiting for the subway to head home. He looked up and noticed a student in his AP computer science class, who was standing with a friend. He said hi and, to his surprise, the two chatted for the next several stops.

Classroom teacher, Joel Bianchi, TEALS volunteer, Minh Nguyen coaching students
Classroom teacher, Joel Bianchi, TEALS volunteer, Minh Nguyen coaching students
As the train sped along, Nguyen and the high schooler talked about the class. She explained how much she liked it, enjoyed computer science – and wanted to go to MIT.

“Good for you!” the New York City-based senior software engineer told her. “I really want you to do that.”

Women and minorities, like Nguyen’s student, are underrepresented in STEM majors and careers in the U.S. What’s more, the number of computer science jobs far outpace the number of young people qualified to fill those openings – partly because computer science is taught in only one quarter of high schools nationwide.

Enter TEALS, the grassroots, industry-wide movement that pairs tech professionals with teachers to establish sustainable computer science programs. TEALS recruited Nguyen and other volunteers to bring CS education to Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem. They instruct students in the AP curriculum, giving them the chance to take the spring exam and earn college credit. They are training a Frederick Douglass teacher so he can lead the class on his own without ongoing volunteer support. And they offer life-changing opportunities to the students who take the class.

Students Luka Sikharulidze (left), Calvin Smith, Wayson Hatchett (red hoodie center), Amisha Rana, Navine Thompson (right)
Students Luka Sikharulidze (left), Calvin Smith, Wayson Hatchett (red hoodie center), Amisha Rana, Navine Thompson (right)
“I like trying things probably other people wouldn’t try,” says Jatara Clark, a senior in the TEALS class. She had tried programming with after-school clubs but this was her first try in a computer science class. She has enjoyed coding so much she plans to major in computer science – along with culinary arts.

It’s an unusual combination, though she acknowledges tech skills would help her run her own bakery – or even put a unique spin on sweets. “I could make an invention to help me bake cupcakes, or frost them really quickly or even put edible lights on my cakes – why not? I feel like being different is a good thing.”

Computer-powered pastries aside, Jatara sees a wider ripple effect from the TEALS class. When she and classmates are working on projects or walking down the halls, peers approach them and ask questions about computer science. She steers them toward taking the class next year – “You gotta do a lot of work, but you’ll get through it,” she tells them.

“I hope I’m the best student in the class! With the help I’m getting from volunteers and the support from TEALS, I’m confident about leading kids through the material.”

– Joel Bianchi, classroom teacher

The TEALS model is building toward a critical mass of tech-educated youth. “If you just go into a classroom and teach, you only help students in that class,” Nguyen says. “But when you plant your seeds here and then go to next school and the next school, each school grows a teacher who can teach CS there, and then they’ll inspire teachers too. That’s what we’re doing with TEALS.”

Classroom teacher, Joel Bianchi and student Matthew Morris
Classroom teacher, Joel Bianchi and student Matthew Morris
Joel Bianchi, the Frederick Douglass teacher, is proof of that. “I absolutely would not have taught AP computer science without TEALS,” says Bianchi, a trained engineer who also teaches robotics. He had wanted to delve deeper into computer science to offer students yet another STEM opportunity but didn’t have the resources or time to retrain. “TEALS is like someone standing in front of me saying, ‘You wanted to do this, here’s the opportunity. Let’s grab it.’”

The TEALS co-teaching model allows him to learn from the professionals who volunteer in his classroom. “I hope I’m the best student in the class,” Bianchi laughs. “With the help I’m getting from volunteers and the support from TEALS, I’m confident about leading kids through the material.”

Students James Blair, Amisha Rana, Kori Hambric
Students James Blair, Amisha Rana, Kori Hambric
Most students don’t realize he isn’t already a computer science expert, Bianchi says. The structure of TEALS allows for seamless team-teaching, so Bianchi simply asks a volunteer to demonstrate or explain a concept he’s still learning.

Bianchi will continue to teach computer science next year – and for the foreseeable future. Thanks to TEALS, years of students down the road will have access to computer science – and the opportunities it creates.

“This high-level computer science class opens up a world to students they never knew existed,” Bianchi says. “TEALS is giving them the confidence that they can do this. They’re already in the STEM world, and now they feel like they belong here.”

“This high-level computer science class opens up a world to students they never knew existed,” Bianchi says. “TEALS is giving them the confidence that they can do this. They’re already in the STEM world, and now they feel like they belong here.”

– Joel Bianchi, classroom teacher
Students Matthew Morris, Erkhes Batjargal, Daryle Henry, Calvin Smith
Students Matthew Morris, Erkhes Batjargal, Daryle Henry, Calvin Smith

Computer science volunteers create sustainable change

Classroom teacher, Ingrid Roche, instructing students
Classroom teacher, Ingrid Roche, instructing students

Leonardo Souza has seen firsthand how computer science education changes lives. His own trajectory switched from factory work to software engineering when he got into a technical high school outside his native São Paolo. Then when his brother was stuck in a job he dreaded, Souza taught him computer science from afar; the brother now works in the tech field. And Souza volunteered his time teaching computer science to high schoolers on and off for a few years, but when he left, that was the end of the program: There was no one to take his place.

Leonardo Souza, TEALS volunteer (Firecracker)
Leonardo Souza, TEALS volunteer (Firecracker)
Then he remembered reading a newsletter article about TEALS, the program supported by Microsoft Philanthropies that establishes computer science programs in high schools across the country. The structure of TEALS – team teaching with industry professionals and teachers new to computer science, then gradually phasing out volunteers as the school becomes self-sufficient – appealed to Souza’s goal to spread tech education.

He now volunteers in an AP computer science class at Boston Latin Academy, a public school of students of diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

“It’s not just me teaching computer science; I’m also helping a teacher learn to teach computer science so they can be self-sufficient,” says Souza, a senior software engineer at Firecracker, a company that makes a studying app for medical students. “I know someone else can continue the work even after I’m gone, and it’s scalable. It’s basically perfect.”

Souza and three other professionals come from diverse backgrounds and different tech companies in an industry-wide, grassroots effort to develop computer science education. They support Ingrid Roche, a former English as a foreign language teacher. She has been gaining expertise in computer science even as she helps the volunteers hone their teaching skills.

Students Justin Auguste and Harvey Li
Students Justin Auguste and Harvey Li (background)
“Some of our students wouldn’t have had the opportunity to engage in computer science classes, summer camps or other opportunities,” Roche says. “So I felt and feel students at our high school – and any high school – deserve to find out what is computer science, do they want to study it and what opportunities can they get out of computer science.” Nearly all the 29 seniors had never coded before the TEALS class, but they now thrive even when faced with tough assignments. The TEALS structure ensures that students have every opportunity to master concepts, thanks to all the individual attention – a rarity in public schools these days.

“I’m only one person. But having five people really invested and excited in a project makes it a very positive experience for the kids,” she says. The students become comfortable working with assistants other than the main teacher and acting professionally – practice that will help them in college, too.

“Computer science is not something you’re born with; you learn. If you dedicate the time, put in the practice and have someone to teach you, you can learn it. I want to be a part of something that gives more people exposure to it.”

– Leonardo Souza, senior software engineer, Firecracker

Take Tyla Smart, a senior who plans to major in computer science when she enters university in the fall. “It definitely helps when problems arise in class because one teacher might have more expertise in a certain abstract area than the other teachers, so the help we receive is very well guided,” she says. Tyla dreams of starting her own software company someday; in the meantime, she volunteers at a community tech center, helping children and adults build web sites or use a 3D printer.

Students Jimmy Joachim, Stephanie Santizo and Lisa Pham
Students Jimmy Joachim, Stephanie Santizo and Lisa Pham
The benefits of TEALS doesn’t stop with students in this Boston class. Volunteers like Souza are helping develop computer science programs in underserved high schools across the country. Their impact multiplies as the instructors they team-teach with become experts in their own right, freeing up volunteers to move on to another school to start the cycle all over again. And as Microsoft funnels more resources into TEALS, the computer science education program will empower a critical mass of teachers and students.

“Without TEALS, many high school students wouldn’t have a computer science teacher,” says Souza, who believes CS is an educational “building block” as vital to young people’s success as math and writing. “We’d miss all those kids who would never realize, hey, computer science is something I would enjoy and have fun with – and something that has a lot of jobs that pay well.”

Classroom teacher, Ingrid Roche and TEALS Volunteer, Leonardo Souza (Firecracker), working with students
Classroom teacher, Ingrid Roche and TEALS Volunteer, Leonardo Souza (Firecracker), working with students
Souza, whose 12-year-old daughter participates in computer science camps, wants to demystify the tech field and prove that anyone can code. “Computer science is not something you’re born with; you learn. If you dedicate the time, put in the practice and have someone to teach you, you can learn it,” he says. “I want to be a part of something that gives more people exposure to it.”

He has seen what a little exposure can do. Students who struggled, who didn’t see themselves as “computer science people,” who questioned whether they were in the right class have come a long way. As the AP test approaches, they not only hope to earn college credit. They have found something they enjoy as they code special powers for Pokemon characters and create video games out of a blank screen.

“This is why I do this!” Souza says. “More and more of the future is defined within computing. I dream that every kid can be exposed to it and, if they like it, have the opportunity to pursue it.”

“It’s not just me teaching computer science; I’m also helping a teacher learn to teach computer science so they can be self-sufficient. I know someone else can continue the work even after I’m gone, and it’s scalable. It’s basically perfect.”

– Leonardo Souza, senior software engineer, Firecracker
Students Stephanie Munera and Alex Sherraton
Students Stephanie Munera and Alex Sherraton

Tech competitors unite to change teens’ futures by teaching CS together

Basis Chandler Students on steps
Students from Phoenix BASIS (L to R): Bhavani Subbaraman, Arya Chethikattil, Raida Khan, Ritika Gupta and Abraham Richardson

Shaded from the Arizona sun in his grandfather’s garage, Mark Dancho used to help wire up a doorbell or build a light table together – tinkering projects that relied on the older man’s experience as an electrical engineer.

Photo of TEALS volunteer and students
Students Bhavani Subbaraman
and Raida Khan and Mr. Mark Dancho,
TEALS volunteer (SanDisk)
“Those are my fond memories of him,” Dancho remembers of his grandfather, who had little patience for children but would allow the kids to help. “He showed me it’s not just about buying something others have made, but that I could create interesting things.”

Dancho is now sharing that magic of discovery with students of BASIS Chandler, a charter school outside Phoenix. The firmware engineer works for SanDisk but volunteers with four others in a computer science classroom. The course is part of TEALS, a grassroots effort supported by Microsoft Philanthropies to equip teachers to forge sustainable computer science programs in schools that otherwise wouldn’t be able to offer the class on their own.

Photo of TEALS volunteer and student
Mr. Zhijian Hua, TEALS volunteer (Intel), and student Javen Ho
This class epitomizes the essence of TEALS: Volunteers from a wide variety of tech companies not only volunteer in the classroom but also train the school teacher. That way, in a few years that instructor will be expert enough to lead the class without relying on outside help.

The unique approach of TEALS creates a ripple effect of bringing computer science education to 6,400 students nationwide in 2015-2016 alone.

Ritika Gupta, 16, had tried coding on her own but gave up because she didn’t understand and had no one to guide her through the complicated details. But this introductory computer science course gave her the tools to succeed – and the space to develop her curiosity.

“This is not a class where you do it this way, follow the rules. That gets boring,” says the junior, who volunteers at her school’s Red Cross Club and dances Bollywood. “It’s more like a process rather than ‘memorize everything.’ It allows for different kinds of juices to flow.”

“A lot of times, teaching students and seeing them work is one of the biggest joys I get out of the day. I see an opportunity to impact not just the school next to you but schools all over the place – to help improve computer science education and make it better.”

– Mark Dancho, firmware engineer at SanDisk

That curiosity rubs off on volunteers, too. “It’s really amazing to see how the students use the knowledge they learned and come up with new ideas,” says volunteer Zhijian Hua, a firmware design engineer at Intel Mobile Communications. “It was truly an eye-opening and thrilling experience for me!” He had never taught before, but the TEALS training prepared him to jump in and influence students who might not have access to computer science education without TEALS.

Teacher and student photo
Mr. Joe Bostaph and student Kristy Taing
Kristy Taing, 16, was one of those students. She first thought computer science would be boring – but was pleasantly surprised. “I like the problem solving aspect of it,” says the junior. “Every project is like a puzzle. It makes it more of a game than actual work.”

That fun has some students excited about computer science in spite of themselves. BASIS Chandler teacher Joe Bostaph, who primarily taught math until the TEALS class began, remembers a few teens who admitted they’d been converted. “One student said, ‘Mr. B., I wanted to not like the class, but I can’t hate it. I get excited every day in coming to class,’” Bostaph remembers.

He adds that part of the turnaround comes from having professionals in the classroom who can drive home the relevance of understanding, using and creating technology.

“Partnering with computer science experts is awesome because they live it, breathe it, love it and have a passion for it, and they bring diversity to the classroom,” Bostaph says.

Photo of teals students
Students Preya Stadler and Abraham Richardson
The TEALS volunteers come from different tech companies – competitors, even. But no rivalry clouds the experience; they are simply professionals coming together to help children.

“A lot of times, teaching students and seeing them work is one of the biggest joys I get out of the day,” Dancho says. What’s more, giving back in a way that’s meaningful to them holds the potential to help many more people beyond the students in Bostaph’s class.

“I see an opportunity to impact not just the school next to you but schools all over the place – to help improve computer science education and make it better,” Dancho says. “The TEALS program is designed so schools need volunteers less as they get more confident. In the long term, I want to help expand TEALS, touch more lives of youngsters and help expand their opportunities in the world.”

“Every single thing will potentially become computerized, and you deal with computers in day to day life – it’s part of life now. How do I make sure students in my community and home are motivated and trained enough to tackle challenges? What TEALS is doing and my small part in it is part of the solution.”

– Atul Hatalkar, principal engineer, Internet of things, Intel
Photo of TEALS students
Students Mahad Alam, Ritika Gupta, and Abhi Bagchi