Andrew S. Pham
Director of the Cyber Lab at The SEED School of Maryland
How did you get started in CS?
Well, it first started when I was a really little kid in the late 80’s. My dad was studying computer science, so we had a computer back in the day; it ran MS-DOS, and I deleted his C homework on it. And if I wanted to play video games (with actual floppy disks), I had to learn DOS, so as a three to five year old I was typing in DOS commands, and I’ve really been surrounded by technology ever since and have always been interested in it. As an educator, I actually didn’t start out in tech; I started out as a History and English teacher, but I took a summer job with iD Tech Camps. I don't know if you're familiar with them, but they charge a registration fee often outside the reach of my students’ families to do tech instruction. They have top of the line computers, a one-to-eight staff-to-student ratio. I was teaching in Baltimore City at the time, and I thought to myself, what if my students had access to the same level of technology, the same kind of rigorous curriculum, to passionate educators- what would happen? So that has been my driving question in everything I do with the Cyber Lab, thinking about the inequities in computer science. Computer science used to be- and it's gotten much better- a difference between the haves and have-nots. Only children with the means, with wealth, could afford computers and training in skill sets for jobs that we knew were coming. I'm happy to say that that experience at iD Tech really shifted me as an educator in technology and computer science to say, hey- my students deserve this too; every student deserves an opportunity to learn computer science. I was mostly a high school teacher, but I also started thinking about how early we could start to introduce computational thinking to students- because this is a new language, a new core subject. Computer science shouldn’t just be the domain of tech teachers; it's everybody's responsibility and we can all play a part in it. So taking a step up into more administrative and programmatic leadership is what I'm pushing for.
What do you find compelling about your work in cyber?
I think one part is looking at the landscape of education and job availability. Maryland is a perfect place for computer science and cybersecurity, and my students deserve a piece of that pie. My students have been underserved; at SEED we have income requirements, all of our students’ families are unemployed or underemployed. So, making computer science and cybersecurity universally accessible in our schools is an equity issue, but also increasingly an issue of liberation as our lives become more intertwined with technology. I want my students to own technology; I don't want them to be owned by technology. By providing that deeper learning, the understanding behind it, my students move from being consumers to producers. I want my students to have an understanding of computer science and cybersecurity; not necessarily to enter the field, but to really understand how this affects their lives. That, to me, is the most important takeaway from an education in computer science and cybersecurity. We have members of congress who don't even use email, don't understand the things that they’re legislating. If we don't understand the algorithms that rule our lives, we just float through them passively. I really want my students to be liberated by their education, to understand what's going on when they sign an end user license agreement, to know that ‘Oh yeah, this service is free but my data is being sold; I am the product,’ rather than just taking services at face value. I think that really understanding everything around them is so, so very important.
What challenges have you faced along the way?
First, there’s the issue of education thinking of Computer Science as a separate topic that can only be taught in confined spaces. The idea that the core subjects- ELA, Math, and Social Studies- don’t involve computer science, and that computer science is extra, rather than a core subject itself. Shifting that mindset has been a big challenge. One good thing about the pandemic was that everybody was focused on computers and technology; people are starting to open up around that and understand that integration is the best model. As for my own struggles, I would say making the connection between math and computer science was a challenge. Math instruction as I was taught kind of made me think, ‘Oh, computer science is only for people who are good at math, only for people who do xyz’. Well, that's not the case; computer science and cybersecurity education are for everybody. Having that shift in mindset, having the confidence to be able to study on my own was important for me. I’m self-taught in computer science and cybersecurity; I passed my Praxis exam, and while I had support along the way, it was not through a formal, structured program. That worked for me, but there are so many resources and organizations out there now to help students learn, and I believe that we need to utilize those and provide an actual, cohesive K-12 computer science curriculum for our students; otherwise we're never going to have a full pathway from public education all the way through to the workforce.
What are you excited about right now? What's going well for you?
As for things that are going well, my department has expanded. I still have two teachers underneath me, the tech teacher and a new computer science teacher, and we've been getting fabulous support from federal grants, partnerships, and federal agencies. We’re really pushing it; we have more students in computer science, cyber and IT courses than ever before. Every single middle school student is going to have two courses with Cyber Lab staff; middle school students are going to get CS Discoveries, then Social Media, Interactive Media, and Video Game Design. We have a partnership with Meta for Virtual Reality through Unity, and then in high school we’re teaching IT Fundamentals, which goes to a CompTIA certification and Security Plus or Cybersecurity, which goes to Security Plus as well as Foundations of Computer Science- so we offer many courses! I think our next big step will be to build partnerships for internships; that's 100% what my students are asking for- industry experience, people to invest time at the SEED school. We get a lot of money, but the biggest ask is for companies and organizations to invest time and provide mentorship for students. We’re especially looking with our company partners for near peers- mentors that reflect the demographics and age of my students- and that's been really, really helpful to get students interested, excited, and motivated to join the tech workforce.
I think the biggest thing is, the Cyber Lab was a bold experiment in what it means to give access and opportunity to students, and it has paid off so well that we want to replicate that and talk to as many districts and people with decision-making power as possible about the importance of why we do what we do. Also, I’d like to thank our partners, including MCCE, cyber.org, Morgan State University, Towson University, so many individual people… this is not an effort solely on my part, but an acknowledgement of the ecosystem that makes it possible to really push our students into computer science, cybersecurity, and STEM careers overall. This is what we need to do as a society to prepare our students and to ensure economic stability in the state of Maryland.