App Authors gives elementary students programming experience

App Authors - student working at computer
Doctoral student Melissa Hahn helps a Kenwood Elementary School student build an app. (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)

Students at Kenwood Elementary School in Champaign are building their own phone apps. Some hope their apps will help solve big problems, such as curbing pollution or money management. Others will let users fight monsters that are trying to take over the world, or let users design a look for their nails.

Through an after-school program called App Authors, the students are getting an idea of what the career of a software designer might be like, as well as gaining experience in coding and learning to work as a team to solve problems.

The program was designed by researchers at the iSchool. The goal is to get students – especially those with limited access to technology and little coding experience – involved with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities.

"What they're really getting is an education about the process," said Deborah Stevenson, director of the iSchool's Center for Children's Books and one of the lead researchers on the project, along with Associate Professor Kate McDowell and Assistant Professor Rachel Magee. "They're getting their feet wet with problem-solving. They're learning to fail and return, fail and return. They're learning that's a big part of coding."

App Authors is a multiyear grant project using app creation to engage students and get them excited about coding. The iSchool is partnering with elementary schools and libraries to develop the curriculum. This spring is the second round of the program at Kenwood. It will be offered at the Douglass Branch of the Champaign Public Library this summer and then expanded to libraries in Springfield, Oregon, and Frederick, Maryland.

A dozen students are participating in the seven-week program at Kenwood this spring. The program uses design thinking, or focusing on the needs of users and considering diverse perspectives to solve a problem, said Lauren Gray, a master's student who is teaching the after-school program. The students are asked to think about a problem and how an app might be able to solve it.

The program focuses on collaboration, something that is already a big part of students' experiences at Kenwood.

"We did a teamwork challenge, which frustrated a lot of them, but I wanted to emphasize that asking questions and empathizing with their user and the people they are working with is part of (being on a team)," Gray said.

The students brainstormed ideas, then made prototypes of their apps on paper, drawing what would appear on the screen as someone is using the app.

One set of students wanted to help solve the problem of global warming. They first envisioned an app where users could photograph polluted areas and then solicit help in cleaning them up. They eventually settled on a game involving objects being shot out of the sky that would also teach about the effects of pollution.

Another student initially wanted to create an app that would allow a user to make purchases even if he or she forgot to bring money. Her final idea was an app that would help monitor how much a person is earning every day, what he or she is saving and how much interest is being earned.

Games proved quite popular, not surprisingly, with the creations from the first round of the program including a soccer game, a racing game and a game called "Jumpy Horses," modeled after the video game "Flappy Bird."

After they made their prototypes, the students began building their apps with App Lab, a programming tool to make simple apps. Then they'll test the apps, look for problems and figure out how to fix them.

"We want to make sure kids have the opportunity to give feedback and also learn how to incorporate feedback and use feedback. There’s a lot of social skills," Stevenson said.

The staff of App Authors is working to make the curriculum flexible enough to be used in different settings – for example, a school program where the same students will be in each class, or a library where participation might be more sporadic and fewer resources and adult supervision are available. They are also aligning the curriculum with various state and federal learning standards.

At the end of the program, the students will write about what they've learned, which helps them develop their reflective abilities and helps the researchers further develop the curriculum.

"We're not looking to graduate coders in fifth grade. We're looking for kids who thought they couldn't (program) to say, 'Hey, I can create Jumpy Horses,'" Stevenson said. "It's helping people populate their imaginations with something they didn’t think they could do."