Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Kids’ coding programs target B.C. tech talent gaps

Microsoft’s TEALS debuts outside U.S. as locals aim to cultivate better computer skills
Microsoft engineer and TEALS founder Kevin Wang (far right) speaks to computer science students at Killarney Secondary School, where Wang's computer science education program launched for the first time outside the U.S. | Photo: Chung Chow

In a new computer lab inside Vancouver’s largest high school, students in the latter stages of their secondary sojourns are plugging away at their keyboards.

Most of the 20 or so monitors feature a digital chessboard of sorts, one that can be viewed in three dimensions.

“Every time I visit a classroom like this, I miss teaching,” said TEALS founder Kevin Wang, who got his start as a high school computer science teacher in California before joining Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT) as a software engineer.

He designed TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) to pluck volunteers from technology companies to help high school teachers teach computer science.

It’s spread to 27 U.S. states, recruiting 1,100 volunteers from 500 companies to teach 37,000 students since 2009.

The Killarney Secondary School students are among the first in Canada to benefit from tech professionals volunteering their brainpower to high school computer labs after TEALS launched outside the U.S. for the first time in September.

As the local tech industry sounds alarm bells over talent constraints, TEALS is among a number of programs springing up to bolster the coding prowess of young people before they enter the workforce or post-secondary institutions.

Expansion of the province’s technology sector is expected to result in demand for an additional 36,000 technology workers between 2015 and 2021, according to the BC Tech Association’s 2016 technology report card.

However, the report estimated that only 12,600 vacancies would be filled, leaving unmet demand at 23,400 jobs.

The industry group said the province would need an additional 12,500 graduates from B.C. post-secondary institutions by 2021 to meet ongoing constraints in the talent pool.

Organizations outside the traditional education system have been moving in to fill in some of the gaps locally.

Ottawa awarded the Telus World of Science a $693,000 grant in January to teach 17,000 young people coding and digital skills in Vancouver.

And Vancouver-based Lighthouse Labs partnered with Kids Code Jeunesse in the spring to create Code, Create, Teach, a workshop series that’s been dropping in on every province and territory in Canada to offer teachers coding skills they can in turn teach their students.

Meanwhile, a coding curriculum for B.C. schools was announced under the BC Liberals in January 2016. The K-9 curriculum debuted the following September.

A Grade 10 curriculum has since become mandatory.

But aside from an optional trial curriculum, grades 11 to 12 won’t be phased in completely until the 2019-20 school year. That leaves a gap in mandatory coding skills for students nearing graduation.

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming told Business in Vancouver the province is on track for the final phase-in.

“It’s really about trying to scale it up,” he said.

“We hear from the tech sector that we need more students coming through with computer science backgrounds, and so there is an interest in working with the school system because getting kids interested at a younger age has been identified as part of success towards getting them into institutions like BCIT [BC Institute of Technology] or UBC [University of British Columbia] or SFU [Simon Fraser University].”

In addition to Killarney, the TEALS program also launched in Canada at Handsworth Secondary School and John Oliver Secondary School in Vancouver, and Burnaby South Secondary School.

The program is expected to expand to a dozen schools by next year and to two dozen by 2020.

The Canadian program features 24 volunteers from 10 companies, including Microsoft, Inc. (Nasdaq:AMZN), Apple Inc. (Nasdaq:AAPL) and Electronic Arts Inc. (Nasdaq:EA)

James Rout, BCIT’s associate vice-president of education support and innovation, said his team spent nearly a year working with Microsoft Philanthropies to ensure the TEALS program would transition effectively into Canada and that TEALS students would then transition effectively to BCIT.

“It’s mission critical for us,” Rout said. “We don’t want to start from zero. We want to start with students who already have a fairly solid understanding of the world of computer science.”

[email protected]