Helper Node Series: Bringing technology to the classroom with TEALS

Elastic believes in giving back, both by supporting the communities in which we live and work, and recognizing that participating in these activities can inspire and enrich our lives in unexpected ways. That’s why we offer our Elasticians volunteer time off (VTO) to foster a culture of caring.

The Helper Node blog series shines a light on the inspiring ways our Elasticians use their volunteer hours to help their community and the world at large. In this edition of the Helper Node series we meet Lee Drengenberg, who volunteers by teaching Intro to Computer Science with Technology Education and Literacy in School (TEALS).

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what do you do at Elastic?

I’m Lee Drengenberg and I’m from Austin, Texas. I started on the Kibana team at Elastic almost four years ago as a test automation engineer and now lead a small team of engineers focused on delivering a great experience with Kibana.

Photo of Lee Drengenberg

Lee Drengenberg

How do you use your volunteer time off (VTO)?

I’ve been participating in a Microsoft Philanthropy project called TEALS. This program provides “teacher training” for software professionals to learn how to be an effective classroom teacher. TEALS then pairs the trained computer science professionals from across the technology industry with classroom teachers to team-teach computer science. I’m now wrapping up my second year with the program.

Tell me about how you became involved with this organization?

Two years ago, an administrator from my children’s school reached out to parents to say they were looking for people with software engineering experience who might be willing to participate in the TEALS program. It’s hard for high schools to find teachers with any software development training or experience. Most people with those skills are working in the software industry with higher salaries than teachers. I feel very blessed to have a job that I love with great pay and benefits, including our volunteer time off (VTO) program. It didn’t take me long to respond to that administrator and offer to help the students and teacher.

TEALS volunteer teaching Python data types in classroom

A volunteer explains Python data types to the class.

What does your day look like when volunteering?

TEALS has a couple of different operational models available. In one model the volunteers attend a few classes throughout the school year for a “culture day” where they describe their personal experience in the software field and other topics in the industry.

In my case, I and other volunteers co-teach the classroom while the teacher learns the material along with the students. Previous volunteers have produced a high-school level Introduction to Computer Science curriculum that we follow fairly closely.

Part of the logistics of the TEALS program is that the school arranges these computer science classes to be the first class in the morning as that makes it easier for volunteers to teach first and then start their work day right after that. I prepare for class the evening before by going through the curriculum material and actually doing the assignments. The volunteers use a Slack channel to communicate daily progress so we know if the students need another day on the material. So we’re adjusting the schedule pretty often, but still trying to cover all the material for the course.

We have two volunteers in class most days. This allows us to go around the room checking on students’ progress and answering questions. And the way we overlap the volunteers schedules gives us good continuity throughout the week.

The first semester assumes no previous programming experience and uses a graphical programming program called “SNAP” from Berkeley University. It’s a pretty fun tool that lends itself nicely to game development. In fact, one of the fun assignments included with SNAP is an activity where students can program the original PONG game.

The second semester is taught in Python. This semester covers data types, looping and branching, functions, and classes. It’s great preparation for the other TEALS Advanced Placement Computer Science course in Java.

TEALS volunteer teachers at whiteboard

Ben (left) and Jim (right) draw diagrams for the students.

What’s your one take away from this experience?

There’s a combination of 9th, 10th, and 11th graders in our class. Some students get the concepts, logic, and syntax of programming very quickly (they may likely pursue a CS degree) while others really need a lot of help and even some direct tutoring before class in the morning. We have to keep the class challenging and engaging for the advanced students but also not lose the students that struggle with the material. It's a fascinating challenge and gives us a lot more respect for how teachers work every day!

What is your biggest challenge or roadblock to being involved?

Morning meetings and occasional business travel can cause conflicts with the teaching schedule for the volunteers. But since there’s four volunteers, it’s pretty flexible.

How do you make time to volunteer?

Elastic and TEALS make it so easy to volunteer for an opportunity like this. The flexibility built into Elastic’s distributed nature, plus the flexibility of this TEALS program with multiple volunteers per class makes it pretty easy to find a schedule that I can participate in a couple of days a week.

T-shirt designed by TEALS students.jpg

A t-shirt designed by students from the TEALS classroom.

Any last thoughts?

TEALS had this program running in many schools across the US and Canada. Look to see if there’s a participating school near you, or get one started!

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