Hartford-Area High School Students Proudly Display Mobile Apps

Students among First Cohort to take Advanced Computer Science Class

HARTFORD, CT, May 23, 2014 – Betsy Dillard, a computer science teacher at Tolland High School, could hardly contain her enthusiasm. “This is the epitome of what education is and what it can be,” she said, casting a glance around the Washington Room in Mather Hall, where high school students Thursday were proudly showing off their mobile phone apps at the 1st annual Mobile CSP Expo.

Around the perimeter of the room were tables set up where students from nine Hartford-area schools were displaying the apps that they had designed in their advanced computer science classes. The first-year program was made possible thanks to a $902,000 National Science Foundation grant awarded two years ago to Ralph Morelli, professor of computer science at Trinity, in conjunction with the Connecticut Chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association (www.ctcsta.org), whose president is Chinma Uche.

Ralph Morelli,
professor of computer science
 Thursday’s event was the culmination of two years of preparation. Last summer, Morelli and Pauline Lake ’13, the project’s teaching consultant, hosted a six-week course in which 10 teachers from the Greater Hartford region participated. Although many were not computer science teachers, they were all enthusiastic about the cutting-edge program.

Michael McCausland, a graphic arts teacher for most of his 36 years, said he never had any computer training. “It was difficult for me. But I dove in head first and I’m very proud of all my students” for what they’ve accomplished, he said. McCausland teaches at Hartford Public High School Academy of Engineering and Green Technology, which was well represented at the Expo.

Indeed, two of his students, Ray Kwonkerr and David Deer, took first prize (based on student voting) for their Midnight Mayhem app, which is a game whose objective is to escape from a city during an apocalyptic crisis while avoiding the zombie that is blocking the way.

Although many of the students created games, some of the apps had a more serious purpose. The team that took second place – Kristopher Marques (West Hartford), Eliot Serrano (East Hartford) and Sean McCarthy (New Britain), all juniors at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (HMTCA), created an app that’s intended to be used in a real-world situation.

The app recently won the first annual Congressional STEM Competition, a nationwide congressional academic competition where high school students compete by programming an app for mobile, table or computer devices. Jim Veseskis, HMTCA’s school’s technology coordinator was the team’s adviser. The app is designed to keep teachers and staff informed when there is a school emergency, providing them with up-to-the-minute information.

Serrano estimated the three students had spent hundreds of hours since January perfecting the app, whose applicability is broader than just schools. For example, it could be used in an office building, on a campus or in any large-scale workplace.

“Everyone can know what’s going on right up to the second,” said McCarthy.

Christopher Cook, a student at Pathways Academy of Technology and Design Magnet High School in East Hartford, created what he called an information app, Scooter Tutorial, which was a step-by-step guide for scooter riders who want to perfect tricks, such as How to Tailwhip, How to Half Cab and How to 360. Cook, who estimated that about 16 students were in the advanced computer science class, said he loved the experience and has a “lot more respect for how to create an app.”

The third-place winner, Tom Kelly of New Britain, was also from HMTCA. His app, Rescue Me, was “designed with teenagers in mind.” If they go to a party and need a ride home for any reason, the app sends a message to their parents saying “I need help” and providing the parents with their child’s location.

Several of the students said they were so inspired by the class that they intend to pursue a career in computer science, math or engineering when they graduate. Akwayne Wilson of Hartford Public High School Academy of Engineering and Green Technology said he is headed to the University of Connecticut, where she is going to major in engineering.

The program is continuing this summer, but instead of limiting it to the Hartford region, 15 teachers from across Connecticut will undergo the training. The NSF grant runs though December 31, 2015, and it’s estimated that between 300 and 600 students will eventually be involved in the project.

Chinma Uche, president of the Connecticut Chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association
 The intent of the program is to promote the use of a mobile Computer Science Principles curriculum (Mobile CSP) in Connecticut public schools. What distinguishes the Mobile CSP project from other programs around the country is its focus on mobile technology (smartphones and portable tablets) to teach computer science. As a result, students learn computing by building mobile apps that serve their communities.

The Mobile CSP uses a new computing language, App Inventor for Android, which provides a rigorous, programming-based introduction to computational thinking. The curriculum was developed in collaboration with Uche, co-principal investigator of the grant.

“Computer science is our world, our future,” said Uche. “We want to get computer science to all students in K through 12 but this is an important first step. I’m grateful to the students for what they’ve done.”

Dillard, the teacher from Tolland, was thrilled to be part of the program. “Look at these kids and their capabilities and enthusiasm,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to teach computer science used in the real world.”

The Mobile CSP builds on Trinity’s Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software (HFOSS) initiative, which, since 2007, has been engaging undergraduate students at Trinity and other schools in building free software for socially beneficial applications. The hope, is to get high school students excited about building open source mobile apps that benefit their communities.

Additional details about the effort in Connecticut can be found at www.mobile-csp.org.

Photos by John Atashian.