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Catching Up with . . . Wes Chao
Jim Morrison, director of student outreach & special projects


Wes Chao has been part of the upper school I-Lab team since joining Nueva in 2019. We sat down with Wes to discuss his path to teaching, the role his outside interests play in his professional life, and to hear more about some projects our upper school students are currently working on in computer science.

Jim Morrison: Can you describe your path to the classroom teaching computer science?
Wes Chao: I always thought I might like to be a teacher. Teaching is sort of in my blood—my mom was a teacher and principal and my sister is a dean of students. When I graduated from college, I was choosing between going into industry and teaching, and industry won.

So how did I get back to teaching? Dumb luck, actually. The luck part is that I was browsing Facebook one day, and a friend had posted, “Do I know anyone who wants to teach high school computer science?”. 

I was curious to hear about this magical place that was teaching computer science to its students, so I had my friend put me in touch. The place was, of course, Nueva, which has turned out to be every bit as amazing and magical as I had originally thought.

JM: How do you draw upon your diverse interests to improve and shape your teaching practice? 
WC: I find that people tend to learn better when they have some kind of personal interest in or connection to the material. I have some students who really love computer science and programming, which is great, and I have some students who really love video games, or art, or medicine, or sports. 

So, if I have a student who loves football, maybe I’ll use an example involving football statistics; if I have a student really interested in medicine, I’ll suggest they work on a project identifying cancer using computer vision. In this way, I hope to make my classes just a little bit more relevant for them, while also getting to talk about topics that I love that aren’t computer science.

JM: A cornerstone of the Nueva experience is authenticity of purpose. How are computer science students in the upper school applying their learning to solve or address real-world challenges? What are some current projects students in your classes are working on?
WC: I think about this in two ways. First, what are concrete real-world problems that students are trying to solve? This could look like a lot of different things: I have a student who is working on an app that uses computer vision to help people classify waste as compost, recyclables, or landfill. Another student is using real-world datasets to find correlations between political affiliations and COVID cases, and another built a machine learning model to predict basic psychotherapy responses. 

But the second, and arguably more important thing, is to help students build up a toolbox so that after they leave Nueva, they feel equipped to tackle bigger and more complex challenges. A critical part of that toolbox, for me, is to have those students understand the ethical considerations of their work so that their solutions don’t create additional challenges. 

JM: I was once an ultimate frisbee assistant coach, but it was simply my availability that was my greatest qualification. You are a lifelong (and talented) ultimate frisbee player and coach.  What are some of the ways the sport has impacted your life and your world view?
WC: Ultimate has been a huge part of my life for the better part of 20 years now. Most of my closest friends are old teammates, as are a good number of the professional connections that I have. My last three jobs all came from ultimate connections—I met the friend that posted about Nueva on Facebook playing in a local league, and one of my references was a player I coached.

I think ultimate’s impact on my worldview is even more significant. As a kid, I was the prototypical nerd—always picked last for teams in gym class, that kind of thing. When I discovered that I loved ultimate enough to work really, really hard at it, I also discovered that it was possible for someone like me—with very little athletic talent (I’m not tall or fast, I’m incredibly uncoordinated)—to get to be pretty good. 

There’s an old saying, “Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.” I think that’s not quite right; the ability to work hard, to grind it out, to put in the reps when you don’t want to, that’s a talent, too. And it’s one that anyone can cultivate. 

JM: I know that each year, your teacher treasure during the Nueva benefit online auction is a college interview workshop. Can you tell us more about your experience as a college interviewer and how you developed that part of your professional life?
WC: I started interviewing for my alma mater the first year after I graduated, mainly because I thought it might be interesting to get a look behind the curtain. The college admissions process is pretty inscrutable and can seem random, so I thought I’d get to learn a bit more about how it works by being on the inside. Over time, my reasons for interviewing changed: now it’s more about getting to meet awesome high school students, hear about the cool projects they’re doing, and be inspired by their hopes and dreams for the future. But I’m actually considering retiring from interviewing, because now I get to do all those things as part of my day job!

JM: Do you know any good computer science jokes?
WC: Good ones? No. But I know quite a few bad ones! Here’s one:

Two men go up in a helicopter, and they run into some dense fog. They lose track of where they are and start to panic. Luckily, they can make out an office building in the fog. They fly close. One shouts to the office workers, “WHERE ARE WE?”

The office worker shouts back, “YOU’RE IN A HELICOPTERRRR!”

“Ugh,” says the co-pilot, “technically correct, but entirely useless.”

To which the pilot replies, “Ah ha! We’re near Microsoft tech support.”
 

Inspired Wes’s computer science joke or insight into his teaching practice? Drop us an email at communications@nuevaschool.org and share your favorite computer science joke or tell us how your own personal interests inspire your professional work or studies. We’d love to hear from you!



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