Problem? There's an app for that, say Richmond students

Game of Apps competition sparks interest from nearly 100 kids

At least 100 Richmond high school students are on track to become Canada’s crème de la crème of a burgeoning industry that is increasingly helping shape the global economy.

A new, after-school competition for kids, called Game of Apps, sees teams of students design and implement their own smartphone apps, which can be used by the school community.

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It’s been a resounding success, according to Chris Loat, the head teaching consultant for “technology integration” at the Richmond School District. 

“I was not expecting 95 kids; I would have been over the moon with 50 and I was thinking we’d have maybe 30. So this is big,” said Loat.

To one extent or another, nearly everyone’s life is directly or indirectly impacted by the increasingly ubiquitous smartphone application, or app, as it’s commonly called. 

Most of us mine these little buttons on our phones via Google Play, if you have a phone that uses the Android operating system (Google), or the App Store, if you have an Apple iPhone. 

Apps are a portal for information and offer services, such as finding a restaurant, conducting online banking, exercising more efficiently or checking the weather. 

Apps may be created for social purposes and/or monetary value. Companies use apps to promote their products and services, drawing app users, or customers, into their sphere, resulting in increased brand awareness and spending. Third-party app creators may generate revenue by selling advertisements tied to the app. 

All of this is the “app economy,” explained independent computer software developer Roland Tecson, a 1986 McNair alumni, who earned a degree in computer science at the University of B.C. in 1990.

“Whether you are a doctor, accountant or an artist, this technology is creeping into every facet of our lives,” said Tecson.

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Reports this year indicate the app economy will be valued at more than $6 trillion by 2021, by growing by about 37 per cent annually.

“The technology has progressed to where people who don’t understand it, can use it. For instance, we see grandparents texting their grandkids these days,” said Tecson, 49, who recalls being inspired as a young student by his former computer teacher Glen Bussey at Walter Lee elementary.

But, “there is going to be a huge gap in the workforce as our technology moves forward,” he explained.

So, Tecson organized Richmond-based developers and designers to form a non-profit society aimed at teaching Richmond youth the basics of smartphone app development.

The Richmond-based non-profit society, the Institute of Applied Design and Technology Education, recently launched the Game of Apps partnership with the district to raise awareness for software development. 

Specifically, they want kids to start understanding how to create apps, with the goal of equipping the next generation with skills for careers in technology.

“School systems are having a hard time implementing the correct curriculum,” said Tecson.

With technology advancing ever faster, Loat said bringing the curriculum up to date is often like a “dog chasing its tail.”

However, Loat notes that young, new, tech-savvy teachers coming into the system. 

He said the district plans to incorporate app development and online coding into the computer sciences department next year.

Loat said the district is committed to having such programs available to low-income students who may not have a smartphone. He also said teachers have been instructed to “tap on the shoulders” of girls who may not necessarily outwardly express interest in the program (only one third of Game of Apps participants are girls).

Tecson said the real aim of the competition is to foster creativity. This is because while coding (the digital programming language used to create the nuts and bolts of a website or software) is important, it will be ideas that grow the app economy.

“Low-level programming jobs can be outsourced (to China or India). Those are non-creative functions. They’re just repetitive and rote, there’s not a lot of creativity,” said Tecson.

The pay dirt is in the ideas, he said.

Lew
Software designer Vanessa Lew

“We want to do more creativity here,” said Tecson.

“That’s why our program is not just coding. It’s about designing and creating concepts that the user would want to use.

“It’s not an easy task. Countries like India don’t want to stay low in the value chain. We need to move faster than other countries. China is moving fast.”

Loat agrees, and was welcoming of Tecson’s offer.

“It’s to give kids some experience in learning how to develop an app from the ground up,” said Loat.

“There are a lot of tutorials online that are good but they don’t address the idea from scratch, such as developing the idea by storyboarding it.” 

Game of Apps is a 16-week competition. On Feb. 24 about 20 teams will show off their new app, for awards, to a panel of judges composed of school district officials and software industry professionals. 

Each week, teams are mentored by professionals volunteering their evenings. Software designers focus more on the human side of app usability and marketing, while developers teach technical aspects, such as computer coding.

When the Richmond News attended a session this week, software designer Vanessa Lew — a ‘UX Designer’ at social media marketing firm Hootsuite — gave students a rundown on user experience and how best to design an app by getting unbiased feedback from users. 

Lew spoke to how apps need to be easily accessible to people as well as functional for their needs. In this respect, the lesson did not touch on any technical aspects of designing an app, but rather the human element of what a good app requires (such as being clear where the user needs to click/tap to get the information they need).

After mapping ideas out on paper, students will test prototypes and craft their final product.

Grade 12 Steveston-London student Marco Lu’s team is developing an app students may use to access school events. It acts as a one stop shop for events, as opposed to the numerous events and clubs found scattered across social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter etc.).

Another team is also creating a school event app.

Teams want their ideas to remain secret for the remainder of the competition, but both are debating whether or not they want users to be able to post events to the app itself. For instance, both teams are concerned about anonymous users. 

“Our main goal is to connect everyone,” said Grade 10 Steveston-London student Leean Wu.

Meanwhile, Grade 10 Steveston-London student Sargan Khurana’s team is developing an app that acts like an “Instagram for Yelp.”

This user-generated content app plots restaurant food photos on a map. Unlike Yelp (a restaurant review app), it is map-focused and should improve upon the Yelp app itself.

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