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Volunteer program brings computer science to schools

Staff //April 10, 2018//

Volunteer program brings computer science to schools

Staff //April 10, 2018//

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When Eric Hatch was in high school, his computer science teacher inspired a passion for the subject that led to a career in the field.

“My high school computer science teacher was the one who sparked my entire career and is the reason why I feel I’m successful personally,” said Hatch, now an information technology project manager with Boeing. “So, I wanted to help make a difference in somebody else’s life like that.”

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He thought about mentoring a robotics team at an area school, but then he got an email from one of his colleagues about the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools program.

“This one seemed perfectly in my wheelhouse, because I had tutored kids back in college and computer science has been my passion,” Hatch said. “So, this came at the perfect time when I was already looking for something.”

The program, a national project supported by Microsoft Philanthropies, brings volunteers from the IT and software industry into high school classrooms to teach computer science skills to students and teachers. Technology Education and Literacy in Schools provides the curriculum and lessons to the volunteers.

“The model is that the teacher of record is still in charge of the classroom and is in charge of any school rules and discipline and whatnot, but they’re learning the material or adding to their knowledge of the material alongside the students with these professionals,” said Robin Willis, associate vice president of talent pipeline strategies for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.

The goal, she said, is that after two years, the teacher will have the knowledge base to teach the class without the volunteer’s help.

A common problem, Willis said, is that schools hesitate to invest money or time into computer science courses because of the how fast technology changes — computer science skills taught in high school today may not be useful five years from now.

This IT program “allows the school districts to relax about that a little bit, and the teacher, of course,” Willis said. “The teacher is getting professional development every day in the classroom and is not having to use their summer or use their nights. It really just serves them very thoroughly — the district is served, the principal and the teacher are served, and then, of course, the students are getting today’s information.”

According to a study (.pdf) by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance and the chamber, software and IT is of the fastest-growing industries in the Lowcountry. The study, which came out in 2016, predicted an annual shortage of 717 employees in the software and IT sector over the next 10 years.

“We need to provide this at the school level because these are the jobs that we have that we can’t fill,” Willis said.

West Ashley High School was the first to adopt the program, with one computer science class in the 2016-17 school year. West Ashley now has two computer science courses with three volunteers each; Hanahan High School joined this school year with four volunteers teaching an intro to computer science course.

Oakbrook Preparatory School, a high school in Spartanburg, also uses the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools program.

Willis said she likes to make sure each class has between three and four volunteers to give the volunteers some flexibility to make their own schedules.

“It is a big commitment in that you’re part of a team that says, ‘We’ll be there for the whole school year,’” she said.

Gary Scott, chairman of the chamber’s Regional Computer Science Advisory Board and a former volunteer at West Ashley High School, said putting the program together is like an algebraic equation.

“One side of the equation, you have to get the schools interested … and you have to have qualified teachers, or teachers willing and qualified to present this material,” he said. “And then on the other side of the equation, you have to have volunteers, industry professionals who are willing to volunteer their time and basically co-teach these classes with the teacher.”

The program helps train teachers to be qualified to teach the courses independently, but as more schools join, the equation becomes unbalanced: Academic Magnet High School, Wando High School and R.B. Stall High School are joining the program with a new class each next year, so 18 new volunteers will be needed.

Last year, it took Willis until June to recruit all of the necessary volunteers, but she is hoping for more expediency this year.

She’s also hoping for more diversity in the volunteers. “We did have, this year, one female volunteer, but I would like to have as many females and minorities on the team as possible,” Willis said.

Lee Burns, head of the information systems department at Trident Technical College and a volunteer at West Ashley High School, said one of the challenges he faces is keeping the students focused.

“They live in a digitized world already,” he said. “They grew up with computers and laptops and iPads and all that kind of stuff and cellphones. So just kind of refocusing them to what they’re actually learning versus what they’ve been doing all along to begin with — so you just have to take whatever group you’re working with and make sure they’re being guided correctly.”

Burns said he’s been surprised by how much the students already know coming into the classroom.

“Sometimes you find out they know a lot more than what you thought they would know,” he said, adding, “They’ve been exposed to technology such as this, so when you start talking about the internet and using the internet and maybe certain aspects of their cellphone and data and privacy and those types of things, they’re all over it.”

Hatch said he feels like the program has been successful in inspiring students to follow computer science as a career, and about half the students he teaches say they are planning to pursue computer science-related degrees in college.

“Overall, it’s felt really, really great to be a part of the community and give back and help develop our next generation of talent,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the April 2, 2018, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.