Every Monday morning, David Tong walks through the high glass doors of the TGR Learning Lab in Anaheim and is greeted by the fresh aroma of coffee and possibilities. Shortly after his mug is filled and the computers have warmed up, the fun begins.
Outside, yellow school buses quickly empty while the TGR Learning Lab fills with the cacophony of fifth- and sixth-graders eager to learn. Now that the children, and their teachers, have arrived, Tong is ready to begin another week as director of TGR EDU: Create, a branch of the TGR Learning Lab dedicated to professional development for educators.
A room full of kids is not what most computer science majors imagine when they picture post-college careers, but this was exactly Tong’s dream.
Born and raised in California, he attended UCI as a computer science major in the Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2005. Tong remembers UCI as being the perfect option for an Orange County native. “It was nice to stay close to family,” he says, “but still experience the independence of living on campus during my first year at the Middle Earth dorms.”
As an ICS undergraduate, Tong had every intention of working in the information technology field. He secured an IT internship through the SAGE Scholars Program, at the time led by Karina Hamilton, and found himself “content, but not satisfied.”
After a little soul searching and encouragement from Hamilton to take a summer job at a tech education camp, Tong realized that his interest in education went beyond his own schooling. “I figured when I wanted to work beyond the hours I was required, I was probably doing something I was passionate about,” he says.
Tong received a campus community teaching fellowship in math and science and worked closely with local high school teachers. He devoted his undergraduate summers to volunteering with different education programs, including the California State Summer School for Math & Science and the UCI Gifted Students Academy.
He minored in education, and soon after graduation returned to UCI for a Master of Arts in Teaching and a teaching credential. Obtaining these in 2008, Tong began a career with the Tiger Woods Foundation. At first, he taught aerospace and forensics to kids at the TGR Learning Lab. Since then, his role and the program have evolved.
While children pour into classrooms, Tong and his professional development team now work on new strategies for teaching science, technology, engineering and math through hands-on projects. The effort involves strengthening educators’ STEM knowledge, a lending library and continuing support by TGR staff. This is where Tong shines.
“My background in ICS has led to the creation of many computer science-related programs at the TGR Learning Lab,” he says. “I was able to develop a seven-week course that introduced students to basic programming concepts through a game-design platform. This enabled them to work through a simplified software life cycle where they could receive feedback from their peers and take ownership of their final projects.”
Although he still enjoys his time with the kids, Tong says, his current mission is to excite new teachers and reignite veteran ones.
He adds: “I’ve also recently organized a professional development program in coding for upper elementary teachers that aims to increase their confidence in discussing and delivering computer science content. There are so many applications and careers in this field, and our elementary teachers have the ability to inspire the students at a young age.”
The experience is fully immersive for both students and teachers – and, arguably, for Tong and the staff – as they work and learn together for an entire week before a new class arrives the following Monday.
In the afternoons, once the younger children have headed home, the seventh- through 12th-graders are welcomed to the TGR Learning Lab. Conversations between staff and students permeate the lounge before the teens head upstairs to the classrooms at 4 p.m. for career-based classes in robotics, video and film production, design or green-energy engineering.
Tong still stays in touch with other alumni of the SAGE Scholars Program, as well as fellow ICS graduates.
“It’s an amazing network of talented individuals who continue to work hard to reach their goals and grow the companies they work with,” he says.