Hacking the School-to-Tech Pathway: Meet Code Next educator Jason Thigpen
Educator Jason Thigpen started out in a career in I.T., and now teaches high school computer science. While originally at a New York City charter school, he’s now a member of Google’s Code Next program, where he’s training Black and Latinx high schoolers looking to lead the tech world into the future.
Thigpen brings versatility to the field of teaching computer science. We recently sat down with Jason to hear his views on whether schools are equipped to prepare students for the future, and how he got inspired to pursue the tech world himself (big hint: his father played a huge role).
You started your career as a repair technician. How did you end up where you are now?
I always loved having the opportunity to learn something, and then showing someone else what I learned. I got started coding myself as a student at Cardinal Hayes High School. When I was in college, I coached shot put. That was my first coaching role. And that's always been the track, since back when I was in college, when I had the opportunity to be a student aide and teach some basic computer classes.
And throughout the rest of my life, all the while, I'm still developing my I.T. skills. When desktops fell in the market and laptops became the thing, I stopped doing repairs and did a lot more web development. I started doing a lot of project management, software and hardware deployments. You can see some of what I did and do on my website
What got you turned onto I.T. from the get go?
I was always interested in electronics. I played video games as a child, and I love to take things apart.
My father was a computer analyst for the MTA (New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority). When I started getting really involved in video gaming, he didn't really care for it, so he tried to turn me onto computer games. Back then, you couldn’t go to a store and buy computers. You had to get an IBM clone in Chinatown. But we went down there, and he said, “Here, play this game on this.”
Afterwards, he told me, “The big difference between this and your game console is that you can program this game.” It was this idea of programming, and what it entails and what it looks like. And I was hooked ever since that first game that I actually attempted to program—a video game called Doom
Video games are still a pretty big entry point for a lot of kids into the computer science world.
As a coach now, I find myself hearing kids talking about video games, and I go, “That's what I used to do when I was a kid, and now I'm like full on in the tech world.” Video games are still a huge hook.
How do we inspire kids, from any background, to get into the tech world?
I hear the phrase a lot where we're talking about getting kids along the “pathway” into tech. But… is there a typical pathway in tech? I wonder to myself whether there is, and if so, how it shuts certain kids out.
We assume that there's just one typical trajectory that gets them in the door. But with tech, you don’t have to learn from someone else. Now, you can go online, learn something, test it, and put it in front of someone else. You don’t have to wait for anyone to do anything. You can just start yourself.
In your opinion, how are schools succeeding at supporting students in the field of computer science?
I think some schools do it well, it’s a struggle at some, and others aren't even making an effort. But I think the issue is that I don't feel like computer science is ever going to sit comfortably in formal education. It’s just too dynamic. It starts with things like basic keyboarding. And then understanding the differences in operating systems. And then understanding the differences between hardware and apps.
I remember when I used to do hardware deployments in a past job. We were moving a corporation from Windows 2000 to XP. You could imagine a lot of folks who had been used to using 2000 didn't want to convert. You would get to someone's desk, and see that they didn't know how to use anything but the program they were able to log into.
I see that same thing in young people. We're limiting their discovery. But we want them to be able to explore.
Last big question—where do you see computer science education evolving in the future?
We're not going to change formal education in terms of how it looks, how we introduce it to kids, for a long time. Computer science is one of those subjects that is society’s responsibility.
We’ve moved away from home economics, we’ve moved away from mechanics. But because these things were taken out of the classroom, we’re all expected to know it—how to put gas in a car, for example. We’re at that point with computers—but because it’s moving quickly, so drastically forward, we aren’t keeping up.
Everything is computerized. You can’t even drive taxis anymore if you don’t have a smartphone or know computers. It falls on everyone. And if you take it outside of schools, you involve everyone.
To learn more about Google’s Code Next program and sign up for the program newsletter, click here.
Photo by Joshua Kissi