Eighth-grader Mitchell M. was surprised when first approached about using his interest in technology to help his classmates at Olentangy Orange Middle School — after all, it isn’t everyday that your teacher asks you to incorporate your hobby into physics class.
But building apps isn’t your average 14-year-old’s hobby.
“I went back to my seat and my jaw just dropped,” Mitchell said of his reaction to physical science teacher David Porterfield’s request to create a classroom app. “I jumped at the opportunity.”
The unusual project came about after Porterfield overheard Mitchell, a soft-spoken but gifted student, talking about an app he had previously created for an online video game show. Porterfield thought having Mitchell develop an app for class would be a great way to extend his learning, he said.
Another student in the class, Dominic F., listened to the conversation and immediately asked Porterfield if he could do the same. Unlike Mitchell, Dominic had never created an app before, but as a self-described techie “obsessed with Apple products,” he was familiar with using them.
After providing the two students with the curriculum information, Porterfield stepped back and gave Mitchell and Dominic complete control of the development process. “I simply gave them some basic parameters in terms of the curriculum and set them loose,” he said. “They were doing this on their own and they did all the work.”
The two spent the next three months writing code; Mitchell worked to develop “Physics to Go” an app that would act as a portable physics study guide. Dominic set out to create “Motion and Forces,” an e-book application that would help its users “experience physics in a more personal way.”
There were some bumps in the road. Apple conducts a review of every app it receives to restrict what is sold through its app store. Mitchell and Dominic’s original submissions were rejected during the review process. But the boys persevered and worked to submit updated versions.
“We Skyped a lot to talk about our frustration after that, but it definitely helped make for a better product in the end,” Dominic said. “We tweaked so many things, and every time we do an update now we take a closer look to make sure there are no flaws or grammatical errors.”
The second effort proved successful and both apps are now being used regularly in Porterfield’s classes.
Each app includes definitions for physics terms, pictures and video demonstrations intended to make physics more accessible and appealing to today’s tech-savvy youth. The young programmers added another level of interactivity by including a review game that tests the users’ knowledge of what they just learned.
“We felt like we kinda had to have the game. I mean, who wants to sit down with an app that you just read,” Mitchell said. Porterfield has been amazed with the results and plans to continue to embrace his students’ interest in technology.
“What they have accomplished is far better than I could have imagined,” he said. “They have taken my curriculum and made it something the students can use and take with them.”
The students are also developing skills that are in demand in the real world, a key point that isn’t lost on Mitchell and Dominic. “We’re grateful that Mr. Porterfield gave us this opportunity,” Mitchell said, adding that having a teacher who lets students use a smartphone as part the learning process isn’t exactly the norm.
“If it helps other kids get better grades it justifies everything we did,” he said.
Establishing an innovative learning environment was key to the project’s success and is something that Olentangy Local Schools promotes, said Chris Deis, the district’s supervisor of instructional technology.
“Creating innovative learning environments increases engagement by blending what the students know and use — their mobile devices in this case— with the content we teach,” Deis said.
The district has encouraged this by, among other things, creating a district-wide wireless network and making use of mobile web tools. This helps spread and encourage learning outside the classroom, he said.
“Olentangy is a great place to learn because of its innovative teachers and Mr. Porterfield just helped raise the bar.”