Three years ago, student teams at my school created apps and presented them in a Shark Tank–type competition. Cameras rolled as the sharks prepared to give feedback. Each of the student project managers led their teams in explaining their app, talking about what it would do, and pitching what they would try to bring into the world.
Now, three of those students are about to enter Georgia Tech, another is starting a prestigious leadership program at Georgia Southern, and two others have full scholarships to an out-of-state college.
However, it’s not just the project managers who have succeeded, but the assistant project managers and other students who helped develop the apps. These students are some of the most awarded we’ve had in the history of my school. And that’s just the ones from the first year of app programming.
That first app project has now morphed into the Mad About Mattering project, which I cofounded with Alefiya Bhatia from MAD-learn and, in the first year, Angela Maiers from Choose2Matter. Our students are building apps with others across the United States and the world. App building has gone global and collaborative. And in addition to making apps, we’re changing lives.
When students make apps, they not only gain a line item on their résumé—they’re transformed.
What Are They Learning?
In addition to all the marketing, graphic design, website building, and content creation activities that take place when you create an app, the students are learning brainstorming and social entrepreneurship.
They’re also learning how to collaborate with other students around the world. And that’s perhaps the most challenging aspect of what we do. It can be difficult for people to work with someone who is in the same room, so learning how to collaborate with students around the world can be quite challenging. My students have done this for the past 10 years, making videos and wikis and websites. But making an app brings collaboration to a whole new level because students have to write the app, build the website and social media presence for it, and present it collaboratively to the online sharks who evaluate apps. In some ways, these students have created their own mini-companies in an eight-week project that I hesitate to even call a project.
Creating apps is not a project—it’s project-based learning at its best. It meets every single ISTE NETS standard for students. And the students learn individual skills—some are graphic designers, some are writers and editors and marketers, and others are project managers and leaders—but they also learn to work together as a team.
And the project can be life changing. When our salutatorian—one of our app project managers—gave his speech at graduation, he thanked me for his time as a 10th grader presenting his app. That real-world introduction to speechmaking was why he felt ready to make his speech as a graduating senior. It’s rare that students name a specific project as formative, but my students frequently name app building as something that changed their world.
My students not only have the knowledge to program apps, they have apps in app stores. They have knowledge about how to give a speech because they’ve done it. They have the knowledge of what it means to work on a team because they’ve led teams of students from around the world.
Building apps in such projects brings in every single aspect of what we do in my computer science classroom. It doesn’t bother me that we’re not building the apps in Python or Java. There’s a place for programming languages. But my class is made up of average students who are not performing in an average or ordinary way. By the time they’re done building their apps, there’s nothing average or ordinary about them anymore. They’re world changers.
In the end, perhaps the most important thing is not what my students have learned about building apps, but what I have learned from watching them do it.
I’ve learned that class is often not in a textbook or a test. It doesn’t come in little tidy lesson plans. It arrives in a comprehensive, large, collaborative, rigorous, exciting, global programming project that has changed the lives of my students. They now have the scholarships, college acceptance letters, and recognition from employers that they’re already world class. And that, my friends, speaks for itself.