Student App Designers Get Feedback From the Pros

In a “Shark-Tank” meets “Project-Runway”–style presentation, a team of students from South Fayette High School recently presented its bus safety app to professional designers from MAYA Design.

Last year, a team of high school students came to Aileen Owens, director of technology and innovation at South Fayette School District, wanting to solve a problem by using technology. The students just didn’t know which problem.

But with a little digging, the team landed on its mission: keeping kids safe on their way to and from school. Soon, the idea for the BusBudE was a born—an app that texts parents when their kids have hopped on the bus and when they’ve gotten off. And last month, the team took its prototype to local design consultancy MAYA Design, where professional designers gave the members a slew of feedback to work with.

The “Rose, Bud, Thorn” feedback process at work. Photo/Aileen Owens

Here’s how BusBudE works: An elementary school student attaches a lanyard with a small barcode to his or her backpack. When the student gets on the bus at the end of the school day, he or she scans it on a tablet at the front of the bus. The student’s parents or caregiver receive a text showing them what time their student got on and the bus number. Same goes for when the student gets off the bus.

The students coded the app using the MIT App Inventor, which is a simple block-based programming tool a bit like an advanced version of Scratch, the kids programming language developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. The BusBudE team members—Meghan Banerjee, Joe Cavanaugh, Sam Cohen, and Nick Wilke—have designated roles including programming, product development, and research and communications. Seniors Allie Kenawell and Nick Karafilis also previously worked on the project.

After the app was in working order, the team headed over to MAYA Design where the designers gave the members feedback through a process called “Rose, Bud, Thorn.” The designers helped the team sort out what works, what pieces have potential, and the aspects that still need to be ironed out or tossed altogether.

Although the designers thought BusBudE was a good first iteration, they had questions. Don’t a lot of kids have cell phones nowadays? Are you sure you can keep all this data safe and private? Have you thought about using GPS? The designers also gave the team tips on how to beta-test effectively.

Owens said rather than being discouraged by the feedback, the critiques energized the team.

“They felt valued, to think designers took their time to give them feedback. The feedback they gave them, in every instance, was another area they needed to explore,” Owens explained. “On the way home, they were rejuvenated—they wanted to get the beta test going right now. It fueled their ideas.”

All the work on BusBudE was extracurricular as part of South Fayette’s Emerging Innovation Leaders program in which students can come to Owens to get support for working on a project or solving a problem. Another middle school student is currently building two robots that will monitor the intermediate school’s hydroponic gardens. And for the last three years, another team of high-schoolers has been developing a pen-based flashcard app

For Owens, watching students go through the process was eye opening. Students had to work together, communicate their ideas, organize, and get up to their elbows in what MAYA Design, South Fayette, and others call the human-centered design process.

“If you see these types of programs taking off and students finding their passion and becoming innovative thinkers, that is something you take back into the curriculum,” Owens said. “How do we the change our curriculum to allow more students this kind of opportunity?”

Owens’ goal is to eventually develop a capstone course that would let students do this type of work within the curriculum of the school day.

In the meantime, the team is preparing for its first beta test at South Fayette Elementary School, where a small group of students will start checking in with BusBudE later this month.

Published February 02, 2015