There’s an App for That

This fall, teachers and students are taking app making into their own hands.

For the last two years, a team of rookie developers at South Fayette High School has been toiling away at a special app for tablets. Working with Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Ananda Gunawardena,the group’s app lets students answer math flashcards with a pen or stylus. Although that’s impressive enough, the team just nabbed first place in the Congressional STEM App Challenge for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district.

The project began as a spinoff of Mobile App Lab, an afterschool program started at Winchester Thurston School that has branched out to four additional schools.

There’s no shortage of apps for iOS or Android devices. But educators and students likely have different problems and perspectives from many techie app developers. For teachers, developing an app is a chance to customize a solution for a specific problem they deal with day to day. Further, when students build apps, it empowers them to switch from consumer of technology to creator, and it gives them a tool to solve the problems they see in the world.

For example, frustrated by how educational videos lacked interactivity, middle school teacher Benjamin Levy founded eduCanon, a platform that lets teachers build questions and responses into online videos.

“It’s not until you’re in the classroom that you realize and really understand the pain points,” he recently told Marketplace in an article highlighting a mix of teachers who have created tools for editing essays, sharing lesson plans, or keeping kids walking while learning.

Whereas teachers’ apps often revolve around solving learning-related problems, students’ apps span as wide as their interests and passions.

Sibling team Ima, Asha, and Caleb Christian said they were talking constantly with their parents about the protests erupting in Ferguson, Missouri, over the death of Michael Brown. The incident prompted the three to roll out a beta version app, called Five-O, which they’d already been working on for months. The app lets users document and rate interactions with the police. It has a “Know Your Rights” section in a Q&A format and message boards for community organizing. The app garnered national media attention, with Good Magazine calling it the most comprehensive app designed for police interactions that’s out there today.

“[Our parents] always try to reinforce that we should focus on solutions,” Ima Christian told Business Insider. “It’s important to talk about the issues, but they try to make us focus on finding solutions. That made us think, ‘Why don’t we create an app to help us solve this problem?’”

Sixteen-year-old Nick Rubin also created a tool for a problem he saw: the public’s lack of knowledge about campaign contributions. After installing his Greenhouse browser plug-in, users reading news stories can scroll over a congressional candidate’s name and a box pops up showing exactly how much money the candidate has collected from specific industries.

Back in Pittsburgh, as part of a final project last year, high school student Jason Stofko developed a mobile safety app specifically for Seton Hill University where his father works. The app lets students request a safety escort, sign up for alerts, and report safety concerns. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his work on the app not only allowed him to pick up three other coding languages to finish the job, it taught him self-motivation and determination to follow through on a long-term project.

Teaching kids like Jason that they can be creators of technology, rather than only consumers, is part of the inspiration for MAD-learn, which provides templates and software to introduce kids to app development. The apps kids have already made range from how to care for a Goldendoodle to rainbow loom instructions. Sure, a student’s first app may be only a schedule for a local movie theater, but developing simple apps begins honing skills that could develop in a million different ways.

“Young people today have lots of experienceand lots of familiarity with interacting with new technologies,but a lot less so of creating with new technologiesand expressing themselves with new technologies,” said Mitch Resnick, one of the developers of Scratch at the MIT Media Lab, in his TedxBeaconStreet talk. “It’s almost as if they can readbut not write with new technologies.”

Resnick explained the coding is like a language, and being “fluent” opens opportunities to express yourself just as you would with a spoken language. So much of what kids will face in life has to do with problem solving, and it appears learning app-building skills has given them one more way to carve out their own solutions.

Published August 28, 2014