There’s an app for that

SJMC, graphic design and computer science students collaborate to build mobile applications

Scattered about a Meredith computer lab, small groups of students are checking their smart phones. Usually, this would merit disciplinary action. But these students aren’t playing Angry Birds or surfing the Web. They aren’t texting or tweeting at their friends. They aren’t downloading apps — they’re creating them.

This fall, three faculty have joined forces to launch an innovative, interdisciplinary mobile app design class that challenges students to think creatively and collaboratively.  Professors Jeff Inman, Hilary Williams and Tim Urness debuted JMC 199: Mobile App Design and Development to a group of 18 hand-selected students, equally distributed among journalism, computer science and graphic design disciplines. The idea for the class originated when Inman, assistant professor of journalism, heard of Urness’ computer sciences class based on basic development of iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system.

Inman believed his students could improve the class by recognizing unaddressed needs in the app market and identifying audiences, which are concepts unfamiliar to computer science students. Inman’s vision was to create a class that would mirror the collaborative focus of the industry today and model real-world problem solving.

“Our goal is for our students to be actively thinking about the current applications of technology but also be involved enough to push into the future,” Inman says. “Ultimately, we want them to eventually be able to produce something they can sell.”

The language of collaboration

Throughout the semester, students have worked together to create functional and original mobile applications. Building across disciplines has required students to stretch their communication skills, too, as they seek to use a common language that transcends fields. While a word or concept may mean one thing to a graphic designer, it could have a completely different meaning to his journalist partner.

“We all speak different languages, and the class has taught us to deal with others,” says Skylar Bergl, a senior magazine major. “But that collaboration is my favorite part. It’s something you’ll have to deal with outside the classroom, in the real world.

Developing skills outside of a student’s area of expertise gives students an advantage after graduation, according to Urness, assistant professor of computer science.

“This class provides a unique experience that gives students real-world problems and allows them to collaborate with students in other disciplines,” Urness says. “This gives them a leg up where people are doing this full time.”

Alumni expertise

Guest speakers, including Scott Kubie, JO’06, underscore the importance of teamwork in developing a product. He and co-workers from BitMethod, a Des Moines-based digital product production and consulting startup, recently walked students through the entire process of creating an app or website. Kubie is enthusiastic about the new class and thinks it will provide knowledge these students will need in an increasingly technological world.

“The internet used to be the domain of a privileged few who knew how to use it, but now it powers everything,” Kubie says. “Building tools for a functional app is going to be an important hands-on experience. It was once a trend, but now it’s just the way things are.”

Creating the apps

The class structure and curriculum were influenced by both the professors’ knowledge of current trends in the workplace as well as the book Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps, by Josh Clark. This guide places all apps in three categories — local apps, multi-tasking apps and apps to cure boredom. In groups of three, students will create four apps throughout the semester, one of each type and one of their choice. As the course progresses, so too will the size, difficulty and extent of programming of the mobile apps. Students will begin by simply planning and outlining but by the end of the course will be fully implementing their applications.

One app addressed the current “couponing” craze. If fully implemented, it would allow shoppers to use their mobile device to scan any product’s barcode, which would then search a coupon database for all applicable deals. The app would allow consumers to digitally file these coupons and present them together at the register for maximum savings.

The course, which will not be offered next semester due to scheduling conflicts, has far surpassed Inman’s expectations.

“It has turned out better than anyone had hoped,” Inman says. “The things students have come up with have far exceeded our expectations, but I shouldn’t be surprised about that. Every time I put something out there for Drake students, they exceed my expectations.”

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