On a balmy autumn afternoon at exactly 3:20 p.m., the door to Michael Politiski’s empty classroom at Irvine’s Rancho Middle School opens. Students run for seats in front of computers.
Eyes darting between the instructor and their screens, fingers clicking on keys, the 12- and 13-year-olds work doggedly to complete data code and geometric equations – much of it disguised as jigsaw puzzle pieces that can be locked together to create sound effects, animated cartoons and other parts of mobile phone applications.
It’s not their teacher at the whiteboard issuing instructions, though – it’s 18-year-old Chethana Nair, a UC Irvine computer science & engineering student. She’s one of more than a dozen UCI undergraduates who are mentoring after-school teams of middle schoolers in Anaheim and Irvine, helping them invent smartphone “apps” that will help even younger kids learn math, technology and science.
“I am really enjoying it. These kids are so bright; we’re just amazed at how much they know. Building these apps gives them motivation to learn many skills,” Nair says. “And if the younger children play the game, they take the subject more seriously too.”
The middle schoolers put it differently: “We’re doing this because we love computer games, and we all want to be quadrillionaires!” says Souhail Siddaqi, 13. “But for the little kids, we’ll give it to them for free.”
Seven weeks of this work culminated Nov. 8 at Anaheim’s Tiger Woods Learning Center with nearly 100 students from the center and Rancho Middle School displaying their creations for judges. Every team won prizes, including Rancho’s Bobamigos and their UCI mentor Bryan Lam. Their app, a favorite with younger kids as well as the judges, allows players to answer math questions and earn points to advance in a series of Olympics events, including swimming and running. Upon winning, Anish Neervannan said to his father Raj, “Pinch me, pinch me, I can’t believe it!” Vikram Vijayakmur was so thrilled he was speechless, then said, “I’m so happy I’m almost in tears.”
Five-year-old Julian Barnes loved the swimming part. “It let me take a long time to answer the question. I got 11 points!” he said, imitating perfectly the robotic swimming motion his character made when advancing on the screen.
Lam downplayed his role, saying his middle school group had been incredibly motivated. But they and the other teams all thanked their mentors loudly, causing UCI computer science lecturer Shannon Alfaro to quietly and happily cry at one point. Alfaro spent months coordinating the program, along with the UCI undergraduates.
The program grew out of “AppJams” started in 2011 by the ICS Student Council at UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences, believed to be the nation’s first such tournaments. The objective is simple: Teams design a fully functional mobile application in a week.
Impressed, the Samueli Foundation and the Kay Family Foundation asked the college students to help middle schoolers design educational apps. Along the way, the undergraduates learn teaching skills, and the seventh- and eighth-graders learn geometry, computer code, animation and a host of other skills.
“This is the future of education,” says Mark Percy, executive director of the Kay Family Foundation, which helped fund summer teacher training and pay stipends for the UCI students.
The goal at both the Irvine and Anaheim locations is to prepare richly diverse students for college and beyond by honing their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen something like this. These are 12-year-olds getting the chance to design apps. The kids love it!” says Rancho principal Scott Bowman, who also praises the positive use of computers. “The nice part is this comes out of UCI. We have a world-renowned university in our backyard. The biggest thing is to have eight student teachers from UCI who really know how to do this. It has a huge impact. The kids see them and think, ‘I can go there too.’”
Katherine Bihr, vice president and executive director of the Tiger Woods Learning Center, agrees: “We are always working to provide young people with new and authentic learning opportunities. The AppJam class lets our students learn valuable skills in programming while having fun and creating tools that countless children can use to improve in school.”
At the end of one Irvine session, UCI mentor Naren Sathiya, 20, and his team of four boys and two girls huddle at the whiteboard. A 13-year-old explains the code that he and Sathiya have written. It allows a ball to bounce off a wall in the maze game mobile app they’re designing – rather than passing through it.
“Okay, if ‘y’ is minus 5, what would ‘x’ be on the other side of this plane?” the mentor asks. A 12-year-old rattles off the answer effortlessly.
There are classic kid moments too. When instructed to “unzip” a file, they erupt in giggles. “Eew, that sounds so wrong!” one says.
At 5:20 p.m., the excited Rancho students head out into twilight as Politiski exhorts them to “beat the tiger.”
Nineteen miles north at the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, more kids work on their mobile phone applications – mazes, dance contests, Angry Birds-style showdowns.
Jimmy Dang, 12, joyfully plunges into the story of his app, a long and winding tale of a princess in prison who is gradually released as ever harder arithmetic questions are correctly answered. Students nearby shriek with laughter as he adds layer upon layer to the saga.
A little later, UCI mentor Daniel Tenorio offers a step-by-step guide to creating a “high scorer” feature. As Jimmy listens, his hand shoots up. “Couldn’t you do it this way and have a shortcut?” he asks, outlining a quicker route.
Tenorio listens and then concedes, “I guess you could.”
As the kids file out clutching candy treats, he says, “It’s awesome. They know exactly what they’re doing once we explain it. They’re also very funny.”