Each year, the University at Colorado-Boulder honors secondary educators across the state who go “above and beyond to support students as they pursue their higher education dreams.” This year, one of those honorees is Niwot High computer science teacher Teresa Ewing, who was described by Principal Eric Rauschkolb as a “kid magnet.”
“Niwot High is a stronger school as a whole because of Teresa Ewing. She has a passion for computer science education; she really loves kids, and she combines those two to create a learning experience for kids that’s second to none.”
Ewing and 30 other honorees were recognized at a dinner held on campus on Friday, May 3.
Ewing hasn’t been on staff at Niwot for long. In fact, she hasn’t been an educator for long. She joined as the computer science teacher in the fall of 2017, after a three-year stint at Flagstaff Academy. Before that, she spent her days in a decidedly different way.
“I have an EE [electrical engineering] degree, and I worked in industry for a long time, for a start-up in Lafayette called Boulder Nonlinear Systems, doing liquid crystal adaptive optics,” Ewing said. “I loved working there and I loved everything I did there.”
She also had another love: Up-A-Creek Robotics. Ewing started mentoring the nascent Team 1619 back when it was still headquartered at Silver Creek High, and her nearby home became the team’s alternative build site when school facilities were unavailable during holidays. She fondly recalls times when she had more than 60 people in her house and her dining room served as a makeshift solid works shop.
“The kids would come and cook, and it was just a super fun time,” she said. “And the parents would come because they wanted to learn, too.”
It was during this time that Ewing decided she wanted to work with students on a permanent basis.
“I started at Flagstaff, which is a charter school, and you can start there if you’re ‘highly qualified,’ and I was ‘highly qualified’ in computer science. While I was there, I got my alternative [teaching] license.”
While the content and curriculum was easy to master, Ewing, who described herself as “shy,” admitted that not all aspects of teaching came easily to her.
“I’m much more a facilitator,” she said. “I had a great principal there [Flagstaff] who encouraged me and told me, ‘You don’t have to be the kind of teacher who stands in front of the kids, if that doesn’t work for you.’ So I created a whole self-paced curriculum. My kids have a ton of assignments, they all go at their own pace, and I spend class time helping them, and they help each other.”
That style also has been agreeable to Rauschkolb, who said that her unconventional approach and industry experience “increases her value to Niwot High School.”
“So many times in education, we talk theory and philosophy, but when we hire someone like Teresa, they can talk theory and philosophy, but they also talk about real world applications, and they can give students excellent guidance as to what career paths to take, what certain career paths require, and even which career paths are a good fit for certain personalities.”
The latter has been particularly important to Ewing, especially when it comes to students who are traditionally underrepresented in computer science and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.
“My intro classes are snagging some of those kids who don’t see themselves as ‘nerds’, and I think we’re having some success,” she said. “Girls are enjoying what they’re doing. I’ve tried to change the curriculum to be a little more girl-friendly. The programming that I teach is very artistic and creative and collaborative, and the girls really like that part of it.”
She has also been expanding STEM-based extracurricular activities for girls, such as robotics and Girls Go CyberStart, a cybersecurity competition for girls. Last year, the Coding Cougars finished first out of 93 teams in Colorado, which was good for ninth overall in the nation. She has also remained active with Up-A-Creek, and had helped increase its outreach to girls, through summer camps and Girl Scout badge days.
For Rauschkolb, that outreach is another bonus of having Ewing on staff. “We know that in most of the STEM fields, it’s hard to get girls involved, so the fact that Teresa is a woman in the field, passionate about getting women into the field is fantastic, not just our female population, but it's beneficial for our entire school.”
Ewing’s efforts to bring more girls into computer science and other STEM fields arose from her own challenges as a woman in tech. She described her journey through engineering school as “lonely,” a condition she also experienced on the job.
“It was very much the case that I would be at a conference with 600 people and there would be four women who were technical types,” she said. “It was almost always the case in a technical meeting that I would be the only woman in the room.”
For Ewing, however, bringing more women into STEM is as much about practical considerations as gender balance.
“I think we have really big problems in the world and I don’t think we can afford to just have one type of person solving them,” she said. “That’s what engineers do—they solve problems, and we need as much help as we can get. There are just so many things coming up with technology that are going to need as much brain power as we can get behind it, and to ignore half the planet or more seems silly.”
In the meantime, Ewing is doing what she can to supply that brain power. Though the transition to teaching high school students hasn’t always been smooth, it has been consistently rewarding.
“In industry, I was working with a bunch of introverted nerds, and here the kids are just so nice, and their parents are so nice and supportive. It’s been a big surprise to learn how much having a relationship with your student is important to their learning, and an important part of my success here has been trying to build those relationships. It’s not just about if-statements and for-loops.”