Reflections from a Computer Science Education Volunteer

Kristie Stalberger, Senior Software Engineer

Dec 3, 2020

One of the most rewarding aspects of volunteering to teach students is seeing the energy they unleash and the surprising creativity they show when exposed to new concepts. As a senior software engineer at Northwestern Mutual, my volunteer work focuses on computer science, primarily with high school students in the Milwaukee area.

I first became involved with Northwestern Mutual’s K-12 outreach program, hi, Tech, about a year ago through the Hour of Code challenge. These one-hour events take place across the globe and in 45 different languages, giving students an introduction to computer science and demystifying computer code. I'm excited to be participating again in this year's event, which takes place during Computer Science Education Week, December 7-13.

Devoting time to volunteerism is a gratifying effort through any initiative, but my recent time spent with students as a Microsoft TEALS volunteer has been particularly rewarding. TEALS connects high schools with tech professional volunteers in their community to strengthen teachers’ industry knowledge and ability to deliver computer science instruction.

Milwaukee Academy of Science, where I serve as a TEALS volunteer, is leading the way in STEM education, so its students are eager to learn technical subjects. What surprised me, though, is just how enthusiastic they truly are.

In the relatively short time I've worked with these young adults, I've seen and heard several stories of students learning to code by doing extra credit work, going above and beyond what's required, and really raising the bar for themselves. It's inspiring to see students get so excited about computer science and watching them grasp that knowledge and run with it.

Learning to code – virtually

While computer science coursework was traditionally done in a classroom setting at Milwaukee Academy of Science, the pandemic forced the school to switch to 100-percent virtual learning. The Microsoft TEALS program has provided the foundation of our curriculum and offers many resources for virtual computer science teaching. Using tools like Slack, Zoom, Google Classroom and other online resources, I work with the school to introduce students to coding and new technical concepts.

For the most part, the pivot has been successful. However, like anybody dependent on online learning, we've found some students experience internet access issues and poor connectivity. We have learned to be more flexible to ensure technical glitches are minimized and students can continue to benefit and grow.

Being a volunteer during these times has allowed me to offer extra support to students and teachers as they navigate the world of virtual learning. Providing one-on-one tutoring online is more difficult than in a traditional classroom setting, which is why extra corporate and community involvement in education is important and impactful – especially now.

Computer science education is more important than ever

We've all seen that schools and businesses have had to adapt and be more innovative to meet new challenges through the pandemic. The way we learn, how we communicate, how we purchase goods and services… technology is solving a lot of these problems and allowing people to adapt by doing things differently.

While it's been a challenge, I think it's even more important than ever to show kids the skill sets they’ll need to join the workforce in a world that is constantly changing. Exposing them to what’s possible is vital, even if they choose a different career path. Through working with these promising students, I've found that they know best what they want and need from tech, especially when it comes to their learning. If we can show them how they can be part of the technology landscape, I think that's powerful for both them and our tech-based society overall.

Beyond helping the students, volunteering has also furthered my own professional development, especially when it comes to tackling complex projects. It has reminded me how important it is to have patience and persistence, and to take a step back and be more intentional in my communication.

The volunteer work has also reinforced how essential it is to break challenges down into smaller problems and build on them, layer by layer, as you strive to achieve the end goal. I think that's an important, valuable lesson that we should all practice in our careers.

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