July 15, 2013

Google Fellows Piloting Tech Ed In Lowcountry

Brendan Kearney  /  Post and Courier

They're from Google, and they're here to help.

That's right, the Internet giant has brought a "SWAT team" of 14 up-and-coming tech education specialists to the Lowcountry as part of a first-of-its-kind effort to inspire the next generation of coders and learn how best to reach them. They arrived last month, are preparing now at Google's Berkeley County data center, and will be coming soon to a summer camp, after-school program or classroom near you.

The idea is to bring the gospel of computer programming and computational thinking to all children, especially underrepresented demographics, and close the gap between the ever-increasing demand in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and the woefully inadequate "pipeline."

Google hopes to learn "what really works and then try to scale it," said Maggie Johnson, a former Stanford professor who is now Google's director of education and university relations. In an interview with The Post and Courier last week, Johnson and her pair of lieutenants who will lead the two-year Google Computer Science Teaching Fellows Practicum emphasized that they have goals but no predetermined path or "answer."

"This has never been done before," Johnson said. "We know that we want to reach as many kids as we can."

Johnson said Google, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., picked Berkeley County as the program's starting point because it's centrally located among its Southeast data centers and because it's "a place where not as much investment is being made." (Fifty-seven percent of the 31,000 Berkeley County School District students qualify for free and reduced lunches, according to a district spokeswoman.)

"There's a huge diversity challenge in computer science education," Johnson said, noting that only about 20 percent of people in the field are women or minorities. The plan is to expand into the rest of South Carolina and then into North Carolina and Georgia, where Google also has data centers, next year.

Johnson touted the fellows as a standout group drawn from Google's tech recruiting process and from teacher prep programs and Teach for America. Half are computer scientists and half are science or math teachers, and the cadre includes a couple of Clemson graduates and a North Charleston native. According to program manager Kate Berrio, they will train over the summer, dropping in on events like the iTeams camp at Berkeley High School last week, and then go into after-school programs starting in September. Exactly what they'll be doing isn't yet clear.

"We're not coming here to change anything that's being done," said Berrio, who wore a Google T-shirt, as did project manager Cameron Fadjo. "We figure if we start with the student ... that allows us to come in to the community in the most sensitive way possible." The Google team let the local school districts know about the program toward the end of the academic year and then met with a group of them last week.

The response was predictably positive. Amy Kovach, spokeswoman for the Berkeley County School District, said talks are in the "very elementary" stages but that the district is "absolutely thrilled for the opportunity to pilot this."

"I think that any time you have someone like Google who's willing to partner with you to further education of students, teachers and community, I feel that's a win-win situation," said Minnie Newman-Caldwell, STEM coordinator for Dorchester School District 2 and mayor of Hanahan. "You just can't go wrong with it." Much remains to be seen over the coming months and years, but Berrio says the open-ended approach is "really kind of Google's way of doing things."

Well, that "way" seems to have worked for pretty much everything else, so have at it, Googlers.