Building a high-tech talent pipeline

Microsoft computer science program gains traction in state

Workforce Development

A little more than a year ago, many Wisconsinites had never heard of TEALS, a program supported by Microsoft Philanthropies that helps high school teachers learn to teach computer science. That’s beginning to change in a big way.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele recently made a personal donation of $250,000 to the program. Abele also got the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce involved.

Milwaukee Institute has for the past year been helping TEALS recruit schools to participate, as well as local information technology professionals to volunteer in their classrooms. The MMAC has agreed to help with those efforts.

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When we started, there were no Wisconsin schools participating in TEALS; this year, there are 13. If we get enough IT professionals to be classroom volunteers in northeasteastern Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Madison, that number could well double for the 2018-’19 school year.

The fact that TEALS has gained traction so rapidly is a testament to the quality of the program and the number of people in our state who were willing to roll up their sleeves and make it happen.

TEALS came to Wisconsin last spring after gener8tor co-founder Joe Kirgues organized several meetings with Microsoft President Brad Smith. During those meetings – which also led to introductions that resulted in the Titletown Tech partnership between Microsoft and the Green Bay Packers – Smith mentioned that he’d like to see the TEALS program happen in our state. And that he’d like it to start in northeastern Wisconsin, where he’d attended Appleton West High School.

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With an extended deadline for applications, we recruited 13 schools – nine in northeastern Wisconsin – to participate in TEALS this school year. Thomas Nelson, Outagamie County executive, and Troy Streckenbach, Brown County executive, were critical to TEALS’ success. Both of them helped organize meetings with schools and companies that had potential volunteers.

Another invaluable resource was Dennis Brylow, a Marquette University associate professor and co-chair of the state’s computer science teaching standards committee who has trained more than 1,200 teachers, mostly in Wisconsin, to teach computer science.

The state Department of Public Instruction suggested calling Brylow for the lowdown on the program. “TEALS is the gold standard,” Brylow told me during our initial call. “We’ve been trying to get them in Wisconsin for years.”

Well TEALS is here – and those first 13 schools made it happen. They signed up on a compressed timeline, creating a lot more work for themselves because they believed their students deserved more opportunities.

“We never could have gotten off the ground without those key school districts in Outagamie and Brown counties,” said Nelson, who attended the initial meetings with Smith.

Computer science is a vital driver in today’s global innovation economy, but most U.S. high schools are unable to offer rigorous CS courses.

TEALS has been key to a dramatic increase in the number of students engaged in computer science in Washington state. In 2009, when TEALS started there, 255 high school students took the AP Computer Science Exam, about the same number as in Wisconsin.

Fast forward to 2017. About 1,000 Wisconsin students took the AP Computer Science Exam. Washington, however, in part because of TEALS, had more than 2,600 students taking the exams.

The more robust pipeline of students created more demand for CS classes, encouraging colleges and universities across Washington to beef up their offerings. This is a virtuous cycle we can repeat in Wisconsin, especially now that TEALS is here to help.

Because TEALS is funded by Microsoft Philanthropies, participating schools pay nothing but stipends to their volunteers. Those schools get TEALS-trained industry professionals to help teachers with introductory and AP computer sciences classes.

But that’s not all that excited us about the program. TEALS builds communities of practice for computer science education and bridges between schools and businesses. It now also sponsors a spring CS fair here, which includes cool technology displays, and meetings for students with local businesses that might be hiring interns and representatives from higher education.

This is important. The greatest number of high-paying STEM jobs are in computer science, recent studies have shown. The stronger our state’s expertise in this foundational, 21st century area, the better equipped we’ll be to develop and compete for those high-paying jobs.

It’s difficult to think of a better cure for brain drain.

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