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Mobile App Competition Engages High School Students in STEM

With the help of a major computer firm, students get hands-on training in mobile technology.

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Student app developers from Apex High School are recognized by Lenovo’s Mike Schmedlen at the National Academy Foundation’s annual conference.
Student app developers from Apex High School are recognized by Lenovo’s Mike Schmedlen at the National Academy Foundation’s annual conference.

Updated 7/23/12, 3:00 p.m.: This post has been updated to include background information on the National Academy Foundation.

By his own admission, Andrew Rothstein, curriculum director at the National Academy Foundation, has a steep learning curve where technology is concerned.

"I can't even keep up with what was, let alone adapt to what is, or even imagine what will be," Rothstein said to a room full of educators and students last week at the foundation's annual conference.

The former teacher's lack of technical expertise illustrates why high schools need to leverage industry expertise when trying to determine what to teach young adults about information technology.

"You can imagine the challenge of being the architect of something about which you know nothing," he said. "I've never downloaded an app. But fortunately I have a safety net."

For the National Academy Foundation, that safety net was Lenovo, a computer company that manufactures PC laptops, desktops, and tablet computers.

[Read how public-private ties can prevent high school dropouts.]

NAF and Lenovo launched a competition at the start of the spring 2012 semester, challenging high school students to develop Android-based mobile applications using Lenovo's ThinkPad Tablet. The foundation piloted the program in five NAF academies: Grover Cleveland High School in New York, Apex High School in North Carolina, Pathways to Technology Magnet High School in Connecticut, Downtown Magnets High School in California, and A.J. Moore Academy of Information Technology in Texas.

The National Academy Foundation builds curriculums focused on bridging the gap between education and business communities. The foundation’s network includes more than 500 career academies that serve more than 50,000 students. Schools must submit proposals and an application to become a career academy or start one on their campus.

Lenovo provided the tablets and the focus—mobile technology—but left the structure and implementation up to the teachers and administrators at each high school.

The competition succeeded at getting students, teachers, and the foundation excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Students developed business plans and built apps from scratch—everything from a note-taking program with voice-to-text capability to an app stocked with Dominican food recipes.

The NAF-Lenovo competition also highlighted the logistical challenges of implementing this type of program on a larger scale.

Three of the five schools ran the programs as an after-school or enrichment option due to restraints in their curriculum, and Grover Cleveland High School was the only one able to dedicate the class time needed to take their students' apps from concept to completion.

The mobile app class at Grover Cleveland was allotted a double class period, giving the 40 seniors participating in the project enough time to complete their mobile apps, and students used an app-building program to assist them with the coding and design. Of the 20 apps created by the students, 17 are available for download on Google Play, the Android App store.

[Read why one sports legend says to focus on science, not sports.]

In contrast, Robert East and Pete Baus, seniors at A.J. Moore Academy, estimate they only had 24 hours of class time over 12 weeks to devote to their note-taking app. The time constraints and the duo's limited coding knowledge made it difficult to pull together a functional program, they said at the conference.

While NAF plans to take what it learned from the partnership and revamp what its career tech academies look like, JD Hoye, president of the NAF, said it will take several years to revise and roll out a new curriculum to all of its schools.

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