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There's an App Class for that!

June 18, 2013

Simulating a real work setting, a class of interdisciplinary Drake students divided into teams this spring, combining computer programming, graphic design, and journalism skills to develop new apps for the Android operating system.

“I walked into the class knowing that I would be one of the designers, but I had no idea it was going to be structured the way it was. It was more collaborative than I thought,” says Annkia Peick, a magazine and graphic design double major. “It was hard not to pigeon hole yourself and say, ‘That’s your job, not mine.’ Eventually we learned how to be more flexible and help each other. It was definitely challenging, but a good learning experience.”

Each team selected an app idea from a list solicited from faculty, staff, and students at Drake, then followed up with “the client” throughout the development process.

“I met with an app company near the end of the semester whose team was almost exactly the same size and format as ours—with a designer, a journalist, and three programmers,” says Byron Varberg, a computer science and writing double major. “It was then that I realized how 'real world' our class was.”

A class reaching across three disciplines was nearly two years in the making. Tim Urness, associate professor of computer science, was teaching a class in iOS development for iPhones in Spring 2011 when Jeff Inman, assistant professor of journalism, approached him about involving students from graphic design and journalism. Hillary Williams, a former graphic design professor at Drake, joined the effort, and the “App Class” was born in Fall 2011.

Upon Williams’ departure from Drake, graphic designer Amanda Morrow of BitMethod, a local application development company, joined the planning efforts.

“Having Amanda involved with the class was great," says Inman of Spring 2013’s App Class. “She brought a lot of practical knowledge and experience to the classroom that made this year’s applications really grow a lot further than I ever could have expected.”

The teams created a variety of apps, ranging in function from group note-taking to botany. The botany-focused app provides botanists with GPS capabilities to track where they’re at in the field. At the end of the semester, students presented their ideas to fellow classmates and were encouraged to submit their apps to the Android store.

“I think to some people phones seem like magic,” says Inman. “The students were surprised by how much goes into even the simplest applications. It’s far more complex than some people realize.”

Urness says the course provided good lessons in teamwork and communication, especially for the computer programming students, who typically work independently.

“The most challenging part of the class was learning to collaborate with the rest of our five-person team for a semester-long project,” says Varberg. “It takes a lot of patience, cooperation, and communication to stay on top of something that daunting, but it certainly helped develop our ability to work with others towards a big goal.”