It was first period at Mission High, and Aimee Menne moved among rows of 21 tired students at Mission High who are working on a program developed out of UC Berkeley meant to introduce beginners to computer science. The game is based on the familiar Hangman but requires students to think logically through a coding process, serving as a precursor to much of computer science including HTML5 and Linux.
“When they give a letter, where is it stored?” Menne asks two young, male students who seemed anxious. “I know you both know this.”
Menne woke up at 5 a.m. on a recent Thursday to get in a few hours of work before heading to Mission High to help teach the school’s only computer science class. Menne is not a teacher but, rather, a project manager for Blackstone Technology Group, a software company based in downtown San Francisco.
She is one of the three tech workers at Mission High and one of the 14 total tech workers who volunteer in San Francisco public schools as part of the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program, which launched in San Francisco last school year and serves five high schools: Balboa, Mission, International Studies Academy, Wallenberg, and Lincoln.
The class, one of the first of its kind at Mission, has students at all different skill levels when it comes to computer science. Some are hard at work at their game, others become distracted easily.
“Please get off Youtube,” Menne told a group of boys when she spotted them straying.
Menne said the diversity of skill levels presents the greatest challenge. While the class has mostly juniors and seniors, there are some freshman and sophomores present, as well as special education students.
“Some catch on quickly, and some are struggling,” she said. “This class has so many levels to it.”.
This becomes immediately clear during class. Some students move swiftly through the assignments while others surf the web, talk with classmates, or stare blankly ahead, occasionally typing in lines of code.
TEALS started with one man deciding to stop in to volunteer in a computer science class at a Seattle public high school on his way to work in 2009. Kevin Wang, who was working as an engineer at Microsoft and has a master’s degree in education from Harvard, impressed the executives at Microsoft when they heard about his extracurricular work. The company decided to fund the program, name it Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, and had Wang run it full time.
Since 2009, TEALS has expanded across the nation, reaching California three years ago. Since then, the program has seen a statewide expansion from one to 33 schools. This year alone, the program will reach a minimum of 1, 242 students in districts as diverse as San Jose Unified, Oakland Unified, Los Angeles Unified, among others.
The volunteers work with students and the assigned teacher to build both parties’ skills. The idea is that the teacher – in Mission High’s case, a teacher trained in arts – becomes proficient enough to eventually teach the class alone.
Menne, 30, moved to San Francisco a year ago and heard about the TEALS program when someone in her “Women Who Code” iOS development group announced the volunteer opportunity.
“I thought this would be a good indication if I should pursue education in my later career goals,” she said.
The other two volunteers at Mission, both female, work at Dropbox and Microsoft.
Vichi Jagannathan, the regional TEALS program volunteer coordinator said that the intent was to have four volunteers per school for this year. They came up short on that goal and have three per school. With the expansion of the program next year, TEALS is in the process of trying to recruit 16 new volunteers to make their number 30.
That’s tougher than it would seem.
“In San Francisco, we rarely have volunteers from the same company,” Jagannathan continued. “A lot of companies want to engage but haven’t heard of the opportunity.”
Despite the shortage , San Francisco has other obvious benefits for young students wanting to enter the tech industry as so many of these companies are right in their backyards.
Lisa Liang and Sally U, both seniors at Mission, sat together and chatted while working on their independent projects. U, who was working on a graphic design project, decided to take the class because she has already taken all the available arts classes. Liang had a free period.
A card for Dropbox gets passed around, and the two girls sign it. The class had recently taken a field trip to the company’s downtown office.
“It was so chill,” Liang said, trying to maintain her nonchalance but it was clear she was impressed.
Then there are students like Evan Grandvoinet, a tall sophomore dressed in his Junior Varsity baseball jersey. Far along in the coding of his hangman game, he talked about how he wants to go into mechanical engineering. Like many schools in the country, Mission High doesn’t offer such opportunities. Even now, he’s more advanced in computer science than seniors in the class and requires very little attention from Menne.
“They should move away from snap and towards HTML because that’s what coding really is,” Grandvoinet said.
He hopes there will be more advanced classes next year.