SPRINGDALE -- Two computer science students at the Tyson School of Innovation created a website tracking daily school bus cancellations across the district in real time.
Seventh-grader Joseph Rouse and senior Lucas Keller solved the problem for their district as part of a project for their programming class, taught by Jessica Mabie.
Schools were relying on email and social media messages to communicate last-minute bus cancellations to families. The website makes it easy for students and parents to find their school and see a list of bus route updates in just one or two clicks.
The project came about after Mabie challenged her students to create something real and practical. Mabie's class has level one, two and three students, so she partnered more advanced students with younger ones to create mentor, mentee relationships.
Rouse was frustrated by the number of emails he received about bus cancellations, so he decided to tackle the problem with Keller's guidance. In October, the two students started creating a website tracking bus updates for the School of Innovation. They completed the project in December.
Assistant Principal Aurelian Sennett shared the site with Transportation Director Kevin Conkin, who was so impressed he asked the students to create a website for the entire district.
Designing a website to serve the district took the project to a higher level. Springdale is the largest school district in the state, with 31 schools and more than 22,000 students. The district transports between 16,000 and 18,000 students each day on 98 bus routes, Conkin said.
Staffing has been difficult for the Transportation Department because of the covid-19 pandemic and extremely low unemployment rate in the region, he said. The department usually hires retired people as bus drivers, but people in that age group are at a higher risk for covid-19, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said.
It wasn't unusual to have as many as 10 to 15 district bus drivers absent per day during the height of the pandemic, resulting in an average of 10 routes a day that were left without bus transportation, according to a School District news release.
Driver shortages and route cancellations create unpredictable transportation for students, causing families to make last-minute adjustments. Before the website was designed, the Transportation Department texted route updates to principals, who communicated them to students and families through email or social media, Conkin said.
Now the spreadsheet where transportation staff record cancellations is linked to the website, so when employees make an entry, it's automatically updated online.
Rouse and Keller achieved this by using Python, a high-level general purpose programming language, to create their program. They used Jinja, a web template engine, to instruct the program to create a new page for each list item.
The final website came online a few weeks ago and has made a huge impact, Conkin said.
Students are the ones who feel the effect of driver shortages, he said.
"These young men have figured out a way to solve their problem," Conkin said. "It didn't solve just their problem, it solved thousands of problems, so kudos to them."
The partnership of students of different computer science experience levels was key to the project's success, according to the news release.
Mabie is a first-year teacher who recently transitioned from a career in technology to education. She hoped older students would be able to give younger students more one-on-one time while the more experienced students tested their knowledge by sharing it with someone else, she said.
Rouse, who started coding in sixth grade, said he's learned a lot online over the years, but it was more helpful to learn directly from Keller, who taught him how to pull data from websites and spreadsheets.
Keller said he feels the project improved his teamwork and managerial skills.
Keller recently experienced another success in coding. He was captain of the coding team, led by Mabie, that won second place at the sixth annual Governor's All-State Coding Competition on April 30. He was also selected as a National Merit Scholarship finalist earlier this year.
Keller plans to attend the University of Michigan to study computer science next year. Rouse plans to continue coding as well.
Rouse and Keller's relationship is already creating a trickle effect as Rouse passes on what he learned to other students in the class, Mabie said.