Jason Slabodsky and the Future of Computer Science
So much of how we live our lives today is informed by advances in computing and computer science, from posting photographs of our lunches on Instagram to research in genetic mapping. Many jobs exist today that didn’t 20 years ago, thanks to computer science, and we can stay in touch with far-flung friends and relatives, thanks to computer science. So many developments in computing have improved people’s lives for the better, from convenience to job creation, but how can we use computer science to directly impact communities for good?
“I live in New York. It’s really great to use Zipcar, order food on Seamless, we Uber everywhere, we Lyft everywhere,” says Jason Slabodsky, a teacher at Secondary School for Journalism in Brooklyn. “That’s great, that’s convenience, but where is the app that feeds hungry kids? Where is the app that helps homeless people? That’s really where computer science has to go.”
Slabodsky was looking to add an AP Computer Science course to the curriculum offerings at his school and, after researching the available options, decided to adopt UTeach CS Principles. “I chose that one because that was the one course that was geared toward females and minority students,” he says.
He attended one of UTeach CS’s inaugural training workshops in Philadelphia in the summer of 2016, and things didn’t get off to such a great start. “I forgot my computer. I remember coming home after the first day and just petting my dog and wondering what I’d gotten myself into.”
But that feeling of helplessness didn’t last very long. “I went in the next day and we started doing Scratch and it just clicked,” he explains. “Yesterday I couldn’t do anything and today I’m going to program an app that will help me reserve lounge chairs at hotels. As the course went on in my training, I realized that I have students who have never been challenged like this. They can try and fail and then succeed and then be better off.”
Slabodsky was able to foster that feeling of empowerment with his 11 AP Computer Science Principles students at his school. After his class successfully coded a rock, paper, scissors game, Slabodsky sought new ways to challenge his students. That’s when his principal alerted him to the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest, which mandates that teams show how STEAM can help their local communities. This was a lightbulb moment for Slabodsky.
“Let’s put this technology in the hands of kids who come from rough situations and instead of them saying, let’s make the next Facebook, how about we go back to our communities and see if we can design something to help them,” he explains. “Those are the principles I instilled in my classroom the minute we started the Samsung contest. Everything was through the lens of, ‘how can we help our community?’” For the contest, Slabodsky’s students developed Moesy, an app that connects restaurants to students who receive free dinners to take home from school. It’s a win-win situation: Restaurants reduce their food waste, needy kids get a healthful meal they might not have otherwise.
In April of 2017, Slabodsky learned that his team was among one of three winners of the national prize. The team won a $150,000 technology grant for their school and $20,000 to donate to the charity of their choice—whyhunger.org.
For Slabodsky, the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest speaks directly to the future of computer science. “Three schools won this contest. One was from Brooklyn and we designed an app to feed hungry kids. One was from Nebraska and they designed a drone that flies over crop fields and sprays pesticides on weeds. The school from Arizona that won designed a system of lights on highways because elk run into cars there. If we can use computer science to make it relevant to local communities, that’s what it’s all about.”
Slabodsky is one of more than 400 UTeach CSP-trained teachers as the program enters its second year of implementation. He also serves as part of the program's elite Teacher Leadership Corps of UTeach CSP trainers. The College Board recently released the official scores for the AP CS Principles exam, which revealed that students who took UTeach CS Principles far outperformed their peers across the country. The implications of these results are clear: When thousands of students across the country excel in a project-based AP computer science course that gives them the space to dream up solutions to the problems they encounter in their everyday lived experiences, the world can only be better for it.