Ellis Wyms Believes Athletes Can Inspire Students to Learn Computer Science

SportTechie’s Athletes Voice series features the views and opinions of the athletes who use and are powered by technology. Recently, SportTechie chatted with retired NFL defensive tackle, and Super Bowl XXXVII champion, Ellis Wyms, who spent eight years in the league with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings. Wyms recently founded educational nonprofit Athletes for Computer Science.

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Ellis Wyms grew up in a small town in northwestern Mississippi called Indianola, a 30-minute drive from the Mississippi River and Arkansas border. His school system lacked access to the types of educational resources that might have benefitted kids in larger programs in bigger cities.

Believing that athletes with social capital can use their influence to inspire kids age eight to 12 to both set and achieve lofty life goals, Wyms, now 39, launched Athletes for Computer Science. Supported by the Wyms Foundation, AFCS is a program that aims to teach children in underprivileged districts about computer science, technology and coding. It deploys athlete ambassadors who share their stories about life, education, and success. In its first year, the program has worked with nine elementary schools in four states, reaching more than 500 kids who have written more than 100,000 lines of code.

Athletes for Computer Science uses curriculum from Code.org and leverages Google Hangouts to bring world class athletes and educators to the classroom. Wyms teaches many of the courses himself and relishes in the fact that technology has enabled him to be in multiple places at once, teaching kids in schools from Pennsylvania to Texas on the same day from anywhere in the world.

Athletes for Computer Science

“I wanted to do something that had more of an economic impact on a kid’s life and give them tools to go out into the economy to fend for themselves eventually.”

“The goal is to leverage athletic influence [on children] to inspire them to learn computer science fundamentals. Whatever they decide to do in their future, having an understanding of how computers work and how they can use those devices to bring their ideas to life will be a part of their future.”

“They learn things like what is a computer. They learn about the difference between hardware and software, what binary data is, what circuits are. They get exposure to what the internet is, and how it works and how packets of information move. They learn about how we use different types of wire from fiber optics to copper. They get a chance to get this introduction to computer science fundamentals in terms of how those machine work that they use all the time, and how information moves over the internet. We give them exposure to different careers in tech.”

Future Problem Solvers

“We always show a computer science video of the day. One of the great videos we were able to share is of Bill Gates, who had a video about climate change. The video talked about all the different industries where we’re going to need innovation and creativity to solve those problems. To take an innovator like Bill Gates, have him articulate problems with climate change, articulate it across different industries, and then we’re taking that seed and planting it in the head of a third grader.”

“We’re saying, ‘OK, here are the problems we’re facing in our world, and here is why we’re giving you exposure to these skills, so one day when you’re an adult you can decide to work in agriculture, energy, waste management, or ocean cleanup.’ We’re planting these seeds to say ‘Hey, you need to learn these skills to solve these problems,’ and giving them a ‘why.’ ‘Here’s why you learn this in math class or why you learn this is science class.’ If you can’t give kids a reason to be driven to want to learn, a lot of kids are going to check out. So that’s one of the great things we’ve been able to do with not just the curriculum, but also with some of the videos we’ve been able to show.”

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AFCS Successes

“We’re in these schools every week and our classes are scheduled in as part of the school day. We know exactly when we’re going to see the kids in classes, we can track them and every single line of code they write throughout the program. It’s not just a one-time event where we highlight technology for one day, we’re connected with these schools throughout the school year. We want to stay connected with the kids, with the schools.”

“The great thing about the interaction with the kids is that moment when they figure out something … those are the greatest moments when you can see a kid have that aha moment, when they’re like ‘I GOT IT!’ They’re really excited. That’s been the coolest part of it because you know in that moment they’re learning and that kid just got better, that kid worked at something and achieved something.”

Teaching the Teachers

“The internet has just flipped the whole world on its head. There was a time when I grew up where you just didn’t have access to information and certain learning opportunities. When you grow up in an environment like that you’re going to have a lack of resources. But the internet has given us all access to information. No information is hidden, no learning opportunities are hidden, it’s all out there for you to go and learn. All you have to do is decide is what you want to learn and what’s important to learn.”

“A lot of time teachers and facilitators on the ground that are helping us organize the classes have had no previous experience in computer science at all. Sometimes when you hear computer science it sounds like you need to have worked at NASA or have gone to MIT to teach the curriculum. The really cool thing about what we’ve been able to do is to train the teachers. Our teachers, after we’ve been in those classrooms for a month and a half or so, have learned and built the confidence so they can teach. It’s been great to provide something to the teachers that can help long term.”

(Photo credit: Ellis Wyms)

Outside Resources

“The curriculum we use is very fun and engaging for the kids. Code.org is a great program to deliver those skills to get people interested in and aware of different computer science fundamentals and concepts.”

“We use Google Meet to coordinate the classes, which has been instrumental because we have operations in Texas, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, South Warren Elementary School in North Carolina, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Being able to leverage a tech like Google Meet makes it very easy for someone who is not super tech-savvy to simply click a link and we’re in the classroom. We can deliver this curriculum anywhere in the world because of Google and the way Code.org is set up.”

“They teach a lot of these classes in Microsoft stores, so the goal is to get teachers from Microsoft to teach more classes as we start to bring on more schools. We’re also working with a university to reach and train their students, particularly their education and computer science majors who are interested in teaching. We can marry teachers and people who have a desire to teach with athlete ambassadors that can generate the enthusiasm and excitement about the learning opportunity. We’d like to get athlete ambassadors to adopt a school and commit to pop in for five to 10 minutes a week to encourage the kids.”

Athlete Ambassadors

“We’ve had guys like Warrick Dunn, a 12-year NFL veteran, who has done great work in philanthropy purchasing homes from single moms. We had Booger McFarland, a two-time Super Bowl champion.”

“We want to recruit more of these computer science athlete ambassadors. We want to leverage the influence that these athletes and entertainers may have with our kids to inspire them, to create that positive interaction around the learning opportunity.”

“Our plan is to partner with the players’ associations in different leagues. We’re about to start a big recruitment drive with the NFLPA and the goal is, as we grow and expand and prove our model, to be able to partner with the NBPA, MLBPA, and NHLPA. There are soccer players, gymnasts, tennis players … anyone that’s gained some notoriety in the world of sports, these kids are probably interested in meeting that person. We want to be able to have a pool of athletes that we can pull from.”

“We also want to have other people in sports outside of athletes talk about how they use technology to do their jobs every day. So the goal is to bring in not only athletes but people from around the sports world to highlight how technology is woven throughout the sports ind

Ellis Wyms