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Peli de Halleux, a Microsoft software engineer, worked with a student in his class Rainier Beach High School in Seattle. About 14,000 American students get computer science undergraduate degrees each year, while 150,000 computing jobs are forecast to open up each year in the U.S. through 2020.

Stuart Isett, New York Times

Student Leandre Nsabi showed off a game he created in a class on making software for mobile phones. A program begun by Microsoft is now in about three dozen schools.

Stuart Isett, New York Times

Fostering tech talent

  • Article by: NICK WINGFIELD
  • New York Times
  • October 2, 2012 - 5:33 PM

SEATTLE - Leandre Nsabi, a senior at Rainier Beach High School here, received some bluntly practical advice from an instructor recently.

"My teacher said there's a lot of money to be made in computer science," Leandre said. "It could be really helpful in the future."

That teacher, Steven Edouard, knows a few things about the subject. When he is not volunteering as a computer science instructor four days a week, Edouard works at Microsoft. He is one of 110 engineers from high-tech companies who are part of a Microsoft program aimed at getting high school students hooked on computer science, so they go on to pursue careers in the field.

In doing so, Microsoft is taking an unusual approach to tackling a shortage of computer science graduates -- one of the most serious issues facing the technology industry, and a broader challenge for the nation's economy.

There are likely to be 150,000 computing jobs opening up each year through 2020, according to an analysis of federal forecasts by the Association for Computing Machinery, a professional society for computing researchers. But fewer than 14,000 American students received undergraduate degrees in computer science last year, the Computing Research Association estimates. And the wider job market remains weak.

"People can't get jobs, and we have jobs that can't be filled," Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel who oversees its philanthropic efforts, said in a recent interview.

On the front lines

So Microsoft is sending its employees to the front lines, encouraging them to commit to teaching a high school computer science class for a full school year. Its engineers, who earn a small stipend for their classroom time, are in at least two hour-long classes a week and sometimes as many as five. Schools arrange the classes for first thing in the day to avoid interfering with the schedules of the engineers.

The program started as a grass-roots effort by Kevin Wang, a Microsoft engineer with a master's degree in education from Harvard.

In 2009, he began volunteering as a computer science teacher at a Seattle public high school on his way to work. After executives at Microsoft caught wind of what he was doing, they put financial support behind the effort -- which is known as Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, or TEALS -- and let Wang run it full time.

The program is now in 22 schools in the Seattle area and has expanded to more than a dozen other schools in Washington, Utah, North Dakota and California. In January, Park Christian school in Moorhead, Minn., will offer an introductory computer class taught by a Microsoft employee, principal Chris Nellermoe confirmed Tuesday.

Microsoft wants other big technology companies to back the effort so it can broaden the number of outside engineers involved.

"I think education and bringing more people into the field is something all technology companies agree on," said Alyssa Caulley, a Google software engineer, who, along with a Microsoft volunteer, is teaching a computer science class at Woodside High School in Woodside, Calif.

While computer science can be an intimidating subject, Microsoft has sought to connect it to the technologies most students use in their everyday lives. At Rainier Beach High recently, Peli de Halleux, a Microsoft software engineer, taught a class on making software for mobile phones.

The students buried their faces in the phones, supplied by Microsoft. They created programs that performed simple functions, like playing a random song when the phones were shaken.

Leandre, who took de Halleux's mobile programming class last year and is in Edouard's Advanced Placement computer science class this year, proudly showed off a simple game he had created, Sun Collector, in which players tilt the phone to dodge black balls and hit big yellow ones.

"I never really understood what was behind these games," he said. "Once you start getting it, it's pretty easy to understand."

Waning interest

One of the most alarming trends for the technology industry has been students' declining interest in computer science. While the number of undergraduate degrees granted in computer science has been growing for the last several years, last year's figure was still 34 percent lower than at its peak in 2004, the association said.

Most educators believe that for students to be excited about computer science, it is critical to introduce them to it at an early age. Yet support for the subject at cash-short K-12 schools has faded.

Finding capable computer science teachers is also hard. Few other industries are as good as the technology business in its ability to divert would-be educators into far more lucrative corporate jobs. Edouard graduated from the University of Florida in 2011 and considered enlisting in Teach for America, but he also had multiple offers from technology employers.

"In today's day and age, with so many college loans, it's tough to go into teaching," he said.

One of the biggest concerns about Microsoft's effort is that most of its volunteers have little teaching experience. To comply with district licensing requirements and to help engineers with classroom challenges, a professional teacher is also in the room during lessons.

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