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Design School 2.0

Want to get students excited about STEM? Start an app design course.

Summly, a news-reading app, was recently bought by Yahoo. Light Sensitive, a quiz-based camera filter app, was inspired by a Nasher Museum of Art exhibit. And Bubble Ball, a puzzle game, knocked the ever-popular Angry Birds off its Apple Store throne. What do these apps have in common? All were invented by teenagers.

Enterprising young developers are paving their own paths to tech success—signing up for independent programming courses, finding online coding tutorials, and more. Yet while teen app designers are making headlines across the globe, only one in 10 U.S. schools offers computer programming and less than a quarter of American students have access to rigorous computer science classes, according to the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

This lack of access puts U.S. students at a disadvantage. “We’re behind most countries,” explains Roxanne Emadi, grassroots strategist for Code.org, a coding initiative backed by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. “It’s not important for every student to be a programmer or learn the expert level—just like not every student becomes a chemist or a biologist—but it’s important to understand how technology works because that’s going to help students no matter what career they go into.”

The good news? Educators are working to change these statistics. From district-wide projects to student-led initiatives, app-design courses are beginning to pop up in districts across the country.

Getting Off the Ground
When Lynette Shott and Kerri Sands started an app-design class at Flagler Palm Coast High School in Florida, they weren’t sure how popular it would be. But almost immediately, student excitement was palpable, says Sands, a Web design teacher at the school. “We got a lot of buy-in.”

Still, students had little programming experience. Shott (now principal, then assistant principal for curriculum), Sands, and then-­principal Jacob Oliva decided to use a multitiered approach—starting with the basics. Over a three-year sequence, students advanced from drag-and-drop software to Java to Objective-C, standard app-programming language.

“It’s important for kids to start with the basics, like learning how to do a loop, and do it in a fun way,” explains Emadi. “A lot of kids don’t even feel like they are learning [when they’re coding], and they don’t want to stop.”

When teacher Patrick Gusman rolled out his app-design class, Startup Middle School, at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science (MS)² in Washington, D.C., he put fun at the forefront, focusing on concept development. “Last year we were focused primarily on the technology and some eyes were glazed over, but this year we focus on the ‘why’ and things are much clearer,” Gusman explains.

For the class, eighth grader Niambi Klugh, along with her team, The Incredibles and Unbelievables, designed Build Central, an app that enables fellow inventors to share their ideas using 3D design software or product shots—and, hopefully, reach potential investors. The project was the group’s way of supporting their industrious classmates.

“During my time here, I’ve seen that it’s the young people who come up with the best ideas, but they don’t really have the resources or the money to get those ideas heard,” Niambi says. “I thought that we could create an app that would assist them in getting their ideas out there [to] investors.”

This concept-driven approach is fundamental to computer science education. “Thinking about creating an app is like thinking about your everyday life and being creative,” Emadi explains. “You’re asking: What do I need? How can I make the world a better place? In app making, you imagine that sort of thing and then create it. That’s really empowering.”

This sense of empowerment drives Andrew Woodbridge’s curriculum. Woodbridge teaches at the Academy of Information Technology at Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, New York—part of the National Academy Foundation, a group of career-themed academies for underserved students. This year, his students partnered with the Center for Hearing and Communication. After interviewing CHC clients and staff, seniors developed five Android apps to address unique challenges for people with hearing impairments. Apps ranged from FallingForYou, which alerts an emergency contact when its user is unable to, to Hearing Aid Approved, an audiology services locator. 

“It’s important for students to think about someone else’s needs,” Woodbridge explains. “Knowing how to work with other people and talk to them and interview them are important skills for college and career readiness.”

“[The class] was an excellent opportunity to learn real-world skills,” agrees 12th grader Michael R. “It’s important to learn programming in school because the job market is shifting.”

In fact, according to Code.org, computer programming jobs are growing at two times the national average. By 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor projects 1.4 million computer science jobs will be available—but unless more schools step up to the plate, there may not be enough graduates qualified to fill them.

“This is one of the only courses I know that gives minorities a chance to advance themselves in technology,” says Howard University Middle School seventh grader Xavier Manning. “So when we grow up and we have to get jobs, we have that education.”

While the second semester of Startup Middle School is devoted to bringing app concepts to life—teaching students wireframe and coding skills—Gusman believes that giving students confidence will open doors. “Regardless of the technology that comes down the pipeline—disruptive technologies may change over time—I want to know that they are going to be able to use technology to solve problems,” he says. “If they come away with the confidence of being problem solvers, I’m very happy.” “Over the past several years, we have constantly been looking to make sure that we are getting the kids college and career ready,” Flagler principal Lynette Shott echoes. “The app class was a natural progression for us.”

Team Up for Success
Partnerships are vital to app-design programs. Grover Cleveland’s program was launched by NAF and Lenovo. Howard University Middle School’s collaboration with Clearly Innovative began with seed money donated by Comcast and Microsoft. And when former fourth-grade teacher Brad Wilson had an idea for an app, he reached out to his whole district—and beyond.

Not all great class-app ideas start with students. Wilson, education technology consultant with Jackson County Intermediate School District in Michigan, took retired teacher Joyce King’s writing prompts and con­verted them into an app. Wilson wanted to make King’s prompts accessible to a new generation of students. His first step? Reaching out to Steve Keinath, at the Jackson Area Career Center.

Keinath rallied a team of high school students, and together they designed Things to Think About, an app now being used in elementary schools around the world. The group even enlisted elementary students to create illustrations and voice-overs.

“It’s all about partnerships,” says Wilson. “We have the ability to collaborate and share ideas easier than ever before. Maybe there’s a district around you that you can work with. Or maybe there are teachers in different buildings who can come together. Teachers need to pool their resources to make things happen.”

For Shott and Sands, students are the best resource. “Whenever we’re looking at what we’re going to do next, the first thing we say is, ‘We’ve got to go talk to the kids,'" Shott says. "'We’ve got to get their feedback.'"

So when the community problem-solving team, a group of sophomores, wanted to take on an initiative to address teen boredom, Shott was on board. The students started by creating a website with information about events around town, but decided they wanted to create an app since “with the technology nowadays, we figured it would be easier for everyone,” explains Iryna, one of the team members.

Under the guidance of teacher Diane Tomko, the students reached out to the Flagler County webmaster and IT director for support. The result was Hype Hub, an interactive app with a circular interface designed to provide a centralized event repository. By the students’ junior year, Hype Hub had been published in the Apple Store.

Getting Apple’s stamp of approval is not easy. First, individuals or schools must enroll in Apple’s iOS Devel­oper program for $99 per year (developer.apple.com) and download Xcode, the main iOS development tool. Then, developers submit finalized apps along with a description, an icon, and screenshots. Apple reserves the right to reject apps for a variety of reasons, from limited utility to inappropriate content. The upside? Rejected apps are given feedback and designers are encouraged to resubmit.

It was a tough process, but another Hype Hub team member, Ashli, credits her group’s success to open-minded educators: “The biggest thing is having supporters tell us that we can do what we think we can do and help us with finding resources.”

“Don’t put limitations on [your students],” Shott agrees. “Don’t be afraid to let them shoot for the moon.”

Learn From Setbacks
Today, Hype Hub has passed the 300,000-download mark. Things to Think About has been downloaded more than 7,000 times.

Still, there is always room for improvement. This year, Keinath is working with new students in Jackson County schools to update and create an Android version of Things to Think About. Dominic Nixon, a senior at Western High School in Parma, is leading that charge, working on a “dynamic background” that changes when, for example, screen size changes, categories are added, or code is updated.

As a result of his efforts to improve the app, Dominic says he has developed valuable problem-solving skills and discovered “how to apply what I’ve learned to real-life issues.”

The Jackson County team is not the only group that has continued to push for improvements. At Flagler, Hype Hub was denied entrance into the Apple Store twice before the third redesign—decked out with new navigation features—was published. At Grover Cleveland, the second semester of the app-design program focuses on business and marketing strategies, such as identifying the target audience. And at Howard University Middle School, after Build Central lost a Clearly Innovative app-design competition, Niambi and her teammates tweaked the idea and tightened the language of their pitch before entering the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. They took home first place in their state.

“I’ve learned that when you fail, you can’t just go home and it’s over,” says Niambi. “Failing is a learning experience, and if you fail, then that means you have to learn from your mistakes. Your work can be better than before.”    

Summer 2014—

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