AppJam+ 2013

AppJam+ returns to inspire young computer scientists

If you noticed the UC Irvine Student Center buzzing with even more youthful energy than normal the evening of Nov. 21, here’s why: The Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences was hosting AppJam+, which meant that about 100 Orange County middle school students were showing off their very own educational Android apps.

The UCI undergraduates gather for a group photo at the AppJam+ showcase.
The UCI undergraduates gather for a group photo at the AppJam+ showcase.

Sponsored by the Orange County STEM Initiative and Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds initiative, the AppJam+ program gives middle schoolers a chance to work in teams to build a piece of software on a deadline — with the help of UCI undergraduates as mentors.

Judging by the whoops, hugs, cheers, T-shirt signings and general jumping up-and-down, this year’s AppJam+ easily achieved its goal of inspiring middle school students to learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

“Even though they were all competing against each other, they all were cheering for each other, too,” noted CJ Calderon, director of OC STEM. She added that it was encouraging to see the event stir such enthusiasm. “It doesn't get better than seeing kids excited about STEM,” she said.

“It’s wonderful to see kids being able to innovate and explore and be imaginative,” said Gerald Solomon, chair of OC STEM and executive director of the Samueli Foundation. “That’s what this is really all about.”

The showcase marked the end of a long technological journey for these girls and boys. Beginning in September, the middle school students and their UCI mentors gathered twice a week for about two months to build their mobile apps, using the simple App Inventor platform. The after-school workshops took place at five sites: Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim; Harbor Day School in Corona del Mar; Girls Inc. in Santa Ana (which met at Santa Ana College); Boys and Girls Club in Garden Grove; and Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Irvine. Last year’s inaugural AppJam+ consisted of about half as many students at two locations.

“AppJam+ gives kids a chance to appreciate something they didn’t know they could do, and develop the confidence that they can do it,” said Nithin Jilla (B.S. ’13), who co-managed AppJam+ with Bren School faculty member Shannon Alfaro. “It demystifiescoding for them.”

The middle schoolers collaboratively brainstormed ideas for their mobile app in teams of three to six people, each with its own UCI mentor. Each app had to be designed to teach a math or science concept to elementary school students.

Mentor Daniel Tenorio works with the AppJam+ students at the Boys and Girls Club of Garden Grove.
Mentor Daniel Tenorio works with the AppJam+ students at the Boys and Girls Club of Garden Grove.

At first, many of the participants weren’t sure what to expect. “They don’t actually learn any of this stuff in middle school,” says Daniel Tenorio, a third-year computer game science major who mentored a team at the Boys and Girls Club of Garden Grove. “I wish this program was available when I was their age.”

“Tonight was really amazing,” said Kim Latour, director of community investment for Time Warner Cable. “The energy of the participants, the apps they all made — they were really high-quality, and you could tell that the kids worked hard on them.”

But it wasn’t just the middle schoolers who got something valuable from AppJam+. “When you give to someone, you receive as well,” noted ICS Dean Hal Stern. “By serving as mentors, our students benefit as much from this event as anybody.”

Wesley Chong of the Tiger Woods Learning Center and his mentor, Stephanie Eng.
Wesley Chong of the Tiger Woods Learning Center and his mentor, Stephanie Eng.

At the showcase, each team set up a table for judges and others to come by and try out their apps. The teams also demonstrated their apps on stage. Wesley Chong, a member of the Tiger Woods Learning Center’s team that dubbed itself Miscellaneous Remuneration, gave one of the more engaging demos of the evening as he described his team’s haunted- house themed game. “There are zombies, so obviously, the only way to defeat them is with math questions,” he declared.

Later, Chong said he had fun tracking down the content his team needed to build their app. “The coding was a bit difficult,” he allowed, but he said that mentor Stephanie Eng, a third-year computer science major, “helped us a lot when we got stuck.”

Christie Pearce, STEM development coordinator for Girls Inc., said that, while the competition helped motivate the students, “as far as I’m concerned, they all come out of this as champions. The sense of pride I see, and the bonds they’ve created with their mentors, are just fantastic.”

The event ended with an awards ceremony, and the four teams that got called up on stage to receive their prizes got progressively louder and more boisterous. Fourth place went to the BIG DEEALS from the Boys & Girls Club of Garden Grove for their math shooting game, “Galaxy Raiders.” Third place went to Tarbut V’Torah’s Fiyaa! for “Breakout,” in which players have to use their math and science skills to escape a school’s evil teachers. RADDAS Games from the Tiger Woods Learning Center came in second place with “Solar Space Brigade,” which teaches facts about the solar system.

And the winners were … Team Swag from Harbor Day School for “Infection Protection,” which helps fifth graders learn anatomy while tackling mini-games in which players prevent infections from harming the body.

John Torres and Team Swag of Harbor Day School celebrate their big win.
John Torres and Team Swag of Harbor Day School celebrate their big win.

“I’m just speechless,” said Team Swag mentor John Torres, a third-year software engineering major, as his jubilant charges and their parents milled about him. “All I can say is, congratulations to them. They really blew me away.”

The mother of a Team Swag member leaned in, nodded at Torres and declared, “He blew us away.”

AppJam+ Showcase photoset

AppJam+ Workshop photoset

— Story by Ted B. Kissell
— Photos by Eva Lempert