Godfrey Yeung (left) is participating in the App Hackathon organized by Ryley Herrington (right) to learn how to develop mobile applications.
A simple game application changed Ryley Herrington’s life. It wasn’t even much to look at, he says — just a grid of differently colored buttons. When one button was pressed, adjoining buttons changed color. But it was his first attempt at writing programs for mobile devices, and creating it got him hooked on computer science.
Change in direction
Although he came to Oregon State University for chemistry, the lure of being able to create something fun that he could share with the world changed Herrington’s direction in life. His first app, Puzzle Buttons, was a class project, but when friends found out he could write apps, he was suddenly in demand. Working on his own or with partners, Herrington has since developed 32 apps including Grammatics, an educational grammar app, and On-Air-Tunes, an app to tweet the music you are listening to.
“Building apps has taught me how to solve problems, and that’s a great skill,” Herrington says.
Herrington’s enthusiasm for app building drove him to initiate the Android App Club and organize an App Hackathon for his senior project to involve more students in app development.
“If at least one person finds that they like computer science because I showed them how to write an app, that would be awesome,” he says.
And creating apps isn’t just an opportunity to learn and produce something new — it also pays. Using income from app sales, Herrington has been able to start paying off his student loans while still in school.
Apps sparked a passion for Nicole Phelps too. Logic and math were her favorite subjects when she was home schooled before going to high school, but for some reason computer science never struck her as a career option. So when she started college at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., she chose athletic training for her major.
“Absolutely none of my female friends were interested in engineering, so I never even considered it before my father suggested that I take a computer science class,” Phelps says.
By that time she had transferred to Oregon State and was looking for a major that would be more of a challenge.
“After programming for the first time ever in my sophomore year, all of the logic and critical thinking problems I enjoyed so much when I was younger came back to me,” she says.
But Phelps’ passion crystallized when she wrote her first app, OSU Connect, at her job with Oregon State University Central Web Services. Having never programmed before in the required languages, she learned many technical skills through the experience and gained practical knowledge about how to manage a project and interact with clients.
The opportunities and mentorship Phelps received in Central Web Services helped her focus her interest on mobile app development. Like Herrington, she wants to pass that experience on to others.
“I hope that one day I will be a prominent figure in the software world and help influence middle school and high school students, especially females, to get some early hands-on experience with programming and design,” she says.
Although app development has become an essential skill for computer science majors hoping to enter the industry, according to assistant professor Chris Scaffidi, the benefits go far beyond students’ résumés.
“The fact that they are making apps is convenient in that it helps the students get jobs or create jobs after they graduate,” Scaffidi says. “But I think our role as a university should be even greater: to help students become idea generators.”
As a former software engineer now working in Oregon State’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Scaffidi is highly motivated to prepare students for jobs in the growing field of software development as soon as possible. He has spearheaded two new courses in app development in EECS: a graduate course taught for the first time last year and an undergraduate course to be offered spring term.
Anxious to start teaching app development before the official courses could begin, he supported two student app clubs for iOS and Android platforms, and he is advising student projects related to app development. These include the App Hackathon that Herrington is organizing and a project for students launching software startup companies (Undergraduates Partnering Toward Innovation Commercialization).
“I don't expect most students will become entrepreneurs, but many of them want to be creative, and companies want to hire creative people,” Scaffidi says. “So this is just a way of teaching them to be innovative.”
Impacting the world
For Chris Vanderschuere, president of the iOS App Development Club, building apps has been an invaluable experience even though he doesn’t plan to make a career of it.
What started out as a fun way to learn some programming skills became much more than that. An avid hiker, Vanderschuere learned the basics of app building by making a hiking app that had a compass and a flashlight. Then his mom suggested he write an app for the Beaverton school where she works that could help teach K-8 students curriculum about the moon — a considerably more complicated project.
“What people see are some pretty graphics of the moon phases, but in order to do that I had to learn a lot of engineering principles behind the scenes,” Vanderschuere says.
Using the current time and location or those that the user enters, the app outputs details of the moon like the phase, location in the sky and moonrise and moonset times. To Vanderschuere’s amazement, his Moon app became wildly successful — attracting half a million downloads a year.
It’s turned out to be a useful tool for purposes Vanderschuere never imagined: a kayaking company in Portland uses it to schedule their full-moon kayaking trips, a photographer on safari in Africa used the app to get a moon shot and an individual in Chile found it handy for predicting UFO landings.
The experience of making an app that has such a broad audience was something he could not have found in a classroom.
“When I release an update it goes out to 1 million people around the world,” Vanderschuere says. “I have to make sure it actually works and spend the majority of my time testing it. So developing a product versus doing a homework assignment is quite different.”
The excitement that Herrington, Phelps and Vanderschuere have found in app development demonstrates the power of experiential learning that Scaffidi champions.
“That’s why I'm here and in computer science — to try and unlock people's ability to create and shape the technological environment that they inhabit,” Scaffidi says.
Learn more about student innovation in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
– by Rachel Robertson