Designing Solutions

In a world dominated by smartphones and Google, students are relying on a new host of tools to find the answers to some of life’s biggest questions. Where is the nearest laundromat? How can I effectively plan a week filled with tests, lectures and extracurricular activities?  Where is Collins Hall? All it takes is a moment of typing followed by a click and the information is available, no need to consult a newspaper or phone book.

As the digital age makes finding such answers easier, the entire information-gathering process has become even more streamlined with the introduction of mobile applications, or apps. These micro-programs often serve a specific purpose or solve a certain problem for their users. College students are especially prone to use apps to get information or answer a question, as the presence of on-campus smart phones continues to grow.

The widespread use of apps has captured the attention of many professors looking to turn students’ everyday experiences into learning opportunities. Some colleges have even started offering mobile app-building courses and credit opportunities to help students solve their own problems while also fulfilling critical learning objectives.

Harper College in Palatine, IL, is one of the institutions offering a mobile application development certificate. There are only a few prerequisites students coming into the program must be familiar with; making it possible for students who have only taken a few computer science courses to participate.  Proper design principles and programming best practices are covered in the program’s curriculum.

An important goal of Harper’s program is teaching students to think about a certain problem and supply them with the technical tools to design an app that addresses it. The certificate also focuses on the tools used to publish an app so that students can share their solutions with the world.

St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY, recently started offering mobile application development courses, and professor Esther Klein has already seen students trying to solve common college problems in her courses.  “Students are free to develop and make operational apps that interest them. Many of them also meet the needs of college students. One student made an app to help schedule all their homework assignments, which is customizable for each semester,” Professor Klein notes.

The University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego) is another school that has made a one-year mobile application development certificate available to students.  The program lets students focus on designing apps, with a heavy emphasis on the overall user experience.  Students are able to think about a problem they would like to solve, and then to think about the way the solution should look as a finished product.

One of the greatest draws for students participating in mobile app development programs is the promise of being able to solve problems specific to their lives while also preparing themselves for an in-demand career. Both Harper College and UC San Diego stress the need for creative mobile application developers in the business world and beyond.

Problems ranging from student parking all the way to on-campus safety can be addressed by mobile applications. Many students, both in computer science and related degree programs, are taking the initiative to solve these problems on their own. Oftentimes, the results of these efforts can be found on the App Store prior to graduation.

Power Planner, an app designed by University of Arizona student Andrew Bares, lets students plan coursework, check schedules and even calculate their overall GPA. Bares says that his idea for the app came when he realized he needed a better, more organized academic planner, and also realized that he had learned the technical skills in his coursework to build it himself.  The app takes the daily needs of students seriously, and even won an app competition hosted by Microsoft.

The presence of student-designed apps like Power Planner is helping to blur the line between the classroom and the professional world.  As more and more students are starting to offer their undergraduate works as apps for sale online, colleges and universities must come up with additional ways to help them gain different perspectives on careers outside the college bubble. 

As part of UC San Diego’s program, for instance, students are encouraged to work closely with professors and other professionals within the mobile app development industry when brainstorming for and designing apps.  The program also offers internships and externships for qualified students, offering glimpses into the world of technology beyond the classroom.  These offerings emphasize the concept of professional collaboration, a benefit that many students might miss when working independently.