Jay Vitella, 12, Claire Ke, 11, and Alex Tomov, 13
Jay Vitella, 12, Claire Ke, 11, and Alex Tomov, 13, (from left) work on a project during APPcamp, a weeklong program on the fundamentals of mobile app development offered each summer by UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences. Steve Zylius / UCI

When a committee of senior leaders from the National Academy of Engineering issued a list of 14 engineering grand challenges in 2009, they probably didn’t expect a bunch of school kids to tackle the problems head-on. But that is exactly what’s happening this month as dozens of sixth- through ninth-graders develop smart-device applications at UCI to solve some tough world dilemmas.

The middle school students are taking part in APPcamp, a weeklong immersion into the fundamentals of mobile app development. Offered each summer by UCI’s Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences, APPcamp is an intensive, hands-on experience for young people who want to gain new skills or add to what they already know.

Students learn computer science fundamentals by working with hardware components and the software tools that control them. They team up to create, test and publish games and mobile applications under the guidance of UCI faculty, staff, and students. Crunch time in front of computer screens is broken up by campus tours and demonstrations of cool technologies developed or used in ICS computer labs. The students end up with a solid picture of what it means to pursue a career in computer sciences.

“On one day we built a computer game by assembling the components, the mother board, and power supply, and programing it with a Raspberry Pi custom computer, and now we are divided into teams to design and code a mobile app,” said Ryan Shihabi, an incoming seventh grader at St. Mary’s School in Aliso Viejo. Shihabi and his two teammates were preparing to present their final project.

The camp tasks participants with coding apps that address one of three engineering grand challenges: advanced health informatics, secure cyberspace and advanced personalized learning. But the challenge to these students comes from an even higher level than the National Academy of Engineering. “Encouraging young students to explore science, technology, engineering and math is a national priority that starts with the president, and it has certainly been a big priority for Dean Hal Stern and Dean Gregory Washington,” says Marvin Maldonado who oversees the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement outreach program for UCI. (Stern and Washington are deans of ICS and the Samueli School of Engineering, respectively.)

“When we look at the pool of qualified engineers and scientists who are retiring, there are going to be vacant jobs. We are encouraging students to go into STEM careers and fill those positions,” says Maldonado. “We have to get them young; it doesn’t help to wait until they’re high school students.”

In addition to seeking young minds, APPcamp organizers try to bring in students from less wealthy backgrounds and those who haven’t seen themselves as fitting the computer science mold.

“In the beginning, this was outside my comfort zone,” says Siena Wood who will be starting seventh grade at Rancho San Joaquin Middle School in Irvine this fall. “I’m more into stuff like dancing and socializing. But pretty much as soon as we started, it was really fun,”

Wood and her teammates designed and built an advanced health informatics app. “At first, I said, ‘this is going to be really hard, dealing with health and medical topics.’ But we thought it through and it became simpler,” she says. Her app is aimed at heart disease prevention. Separate tabs offer diet and exercise tips, workout and meal logs, and a grocery list of healthy foods and recipes.

“What surprised us the most was that Siena came away realizing that engineering could be a blast and that it was not just for boys,” says Marcelo Wood, Siena’s father and chair of UCI’s Department of Neurobiology & Behavior. “The teachers at APPcamp did a fantastic job providing a terrific learning environment that allowed Siena to draw her own conclusion that girls belong in engineering just as much as boys. My wife and I were impressed by this and extremely happy with how much fun Siena had and the deeper life lessons she came away with ­–­ all in a week.”

Gloria Simpson says her son Kai was able to tap into his creativity in APPcamp. “He learned something exciting and new every day,” she says.

“APPcamp participants get to see what UCI computer science researchers do on a daily basis,” Maldonado says. “The staff and faculty have been great; they really want to share the cool things they’re doing.”

Whether these middle school students go on to careers in computer science remains to be seen, but at the very least, some APPcamp participants have been bitten by the summer STEM camp bug.

“I plan on going to FABcamp in the future,” Siena Wood says. “In the FABcamp you get to design drones and stuff; that sounds really fun, exciting and different.”