By Ellen Ferrante, National Science Foundation
In nearly 20 years, Youth Radio has grown from a small radio skills training program in Berkeley, Calif. to a national organization with bureaus in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. The program has helped young people develop marketable behind-the-scenes and on-air skills, winning it the most coveted awards in journalism.
Now it's taking on another venture: app development.
Called the Mobile Action Lab, Youth Radio's new initiative helps young people learn to propose, design and market computer and smartphone-based apps that serve community needs. Meanwhile, the skills participants learn are valuable commodities in today's tech-driven economy.
Mobile Action Lab provides 14-24 year olds training and hands-on experience in media and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It partners young people with professional app developers to create five mobile and web-based apps that serve real needs in the community, such as finding free food distribution, youth and police relations and other resources.
Youth Radio was one of the 2010 winners of the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media Learning Competition. The award provided a key financial investment to start the Mobile Action Lab. Based in Oakland, Calif. and funded by the National Science Foundation, Mobile Action Lab officially launched in September of the same year.
"Youth Radio launched its Mobile Action Lab to expand our science and tech offerings for youth and to leverage the potential of mobile platforms to create high-impact digital projects," said Elisabeth "Lissa" Soep, Senior Producer and Research Director of Mobile Action Lab. "Based on challenges in public education, transformations in media worlds and opportunities to spark STEM learning, Youth Radio decided to capitalize on the talent of its young people and its network of professional colleagues by teaching young people to create new technology platforms. Apps increasingly determine who knows what, how news travels and what makes change possible."
According to Soep, the Mobile Action Lab strives to "lower barriers that have traditionally blocked teens and young adults from learning to develop innovative tech platforms, which is especially significant for those who haven't had access to excellent, engaging STEM teaching in schools."
Soep also explained how Mobile Action Lab provides a network between young people, especially low income youth and youth of color, with tech developers, engineers, and entrepreneurs; and prepares all graduates of Mobile Action Lab with the skill-sets to "configure design-development teams and play key roles in future tech-based projects--from conception through research, design and development, testing, launch and analysis."
The app process
Although the specific development process differs for each app, in all of the projects, young people are deeply involved, from brainstorming the app's concept to marketing the app and planning its distribution. After the general app concept has been defined, young people recruit a team to work on the app, research the app market and types of potential users, define and diagram the functionality of the app, and design the app's "look and feel." In quarterly developer workshops, young people learn how to program and code simple apps, which sometimes serve as prototypes for fully developed products, using the Google App Inventor.
"Through hands-on workshops, we're not just theorizing about app development--we're actually learning the coding side," said Asha Richardson, a project associate at Mobile Action Lab. "That's something not enough people know--what programming is--not enough schools talk about it. App Inventor uses coding blocks, and you have to know which parts go where in order to make your app do what you want it to do. You move the coding blocks around, then throw it on the phone, see if it works, fix it, and then try again."
Austin De Rubira explained how the principles he learned at this workshop serve an integral role in Mobile Action Lab. One of these principles is the "iterative development process."
"It's basically creating something through trial and error—you try something, and if it doesn't work, you fix it until it does work," explained De Rubira, an intern at Mobile Action Lab. "That was a really hands-on definition of the iterative development process. It definitely clicked in my mind and it really made a lot of sense to me. Iterative development is a very effective way to work on apps, and that's how I've been thinking about our entire process with the Mobile Action Lab."