Microsoft TEALS: My Personal Experience and Its Lasting Impact
Technology Education And Literacy in Schools (TEALS) is a program started by a Microsoft employee to address the lack of computer science courses in high schools. The program matches software engineers in the industry to high schools without CS courses. The engineers teach the courses (Intro to Computer Science or AP Computer Science) at first, then the local classroom teacher gradually takes over. The goal is for the school to have a self-perpetuating computer science program within two or three years.
Beattyville is a small town of around 1250 in Southeastern Kentucky. Dubbed 'America's Poorest White Town', Beattyville has had its fair share of economic trouble and not so fair share of resources. Lee County High School, the only one in the county, is unable to provide the same opportunities as other schools, but students and faculty make do with what they have. So, it should come as no surprise that LCHS did not offer a computer science course.
Through a stroke of luck, a Microsoft employee and volunteer within TEALS met our school board president while rock climbing in Red River Gorge. TEALS was looking for a pilot school for remote teaching, and our high school was grateful for the opportunity. The next school year, my junior year, an Introduction to Computer Science course was taught at our school via Skype. Unfortunately, the dream come true had a setback, as I was unable to enroll due to scheduling conflicts with a required math course.
Within the first few weeks of school, the software engineers had flown to our school in order to meet with the students in person. They also hosted a presentation for any interested students. I was certain not to miss it. After the presentation, they stayed back to answer any lingering questions. I met with one and explained my situation and interest. He introduced me to websites with free computer science courses like Udacity and Coursera. I had no idea these existed. Over the school year, I enrolled in and completed Udacity's Intro to Computer Science course. It was an amazing experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in CS.
Around halfway through the school year, there was a rumor that they were expanding TEALS at our school to include AP Computer Science next year. My friends and I anxiously waited to learn if the rumor was true. Near the end of the school, it was confirmed. I (unsuccessfully) tried not to be too excited, as I did not want to be disappointed again with another scheduling conflict.
When I learned the schedules for my senior year, I found out that AP Calculus was at the same time as AP Computer Science. I was heartbroken. The heartbreak was short-lived though, as our upper level math teacher offered to teach me Calc during his planning period. I was (and still am) extremely grateful for this, as it allowed me to take both classes.
Our AP Computer Science course had 7 students including me. Our two teachers were software engineers based in NYC, and they taught the course via Skype everyday around 9:30 am. The course taught the Java programming language and included creating a calculator program, a spreadsheet program similar to VisiCalc, and modifying GridWorld.
The highlight of the course was a trip to Seattle, WA. Microsoft was gracious enough to fly our class out for 4 days. While there, we toured the city, saw the beach, and visited the offices of Facebook, Google, and (of course) Microsoft. I cannot describe how amazing this trip was. It was my first (and only) time I have been west of the Mississippi. It allowed us to see and experience the world outside of our small town. Most importantly, though, it made everything seem real and reachable. Afterwards I knew that I wanted to pursue computer science in college.
Our college choices in high school were usually limited to colleges in Kentucky. It's not that we were actively discouraged from applying to top tier schools out of state, it was just never really presented as an option. When one of our teachers found out about my college preferences, he offered to help me with my application. Having went to Cornell, he was intimately familiar with the process. His help was invaluable, as our school's experience with helping students with the Common App was severely lacking.
College admission decisions were released near the end of March. Anyone who has went through this process will know how nervous I was waiting for the results. I found out I was accepted into the Engineering School at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was ecstatic. It was the culmination of all of my hard work, and I know it would not have been possible without my teacher and TEALS.
The benefits of TEALS did not stop after my first day of college. I was learning with and competing with students who went to the top high schools around the world and had excellent resources. I definitely felt I was at a disadvantage in some of my courses. I never felt disadvantaged in my computer science courses. In fact, I had just as good if not a better background than my peers, a testament to the world class computer science education I received through TEALS.
During my sophomore year of college, I was invited to a Microsoft hosted dinner at the Clinton Global Initiative in NYC. It was another amazing experience, and I was able to share the impact the TEALS program had on me. I was also able to reconnect with my teachers and meet some amazing people.
In summary, TEALS is great. The program changed my life, and I wouldn't be where I am today without it. If anyone has the chance to participate in this program, I highly recommend it.