Mobile Maker Magic

Students Get Chance to Learn About and Design Apps

Anthony Luparello

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Photo by Anthony Luparello

Discussing with her students, computer science teacher Cheri Whalen acts as an advisory figure during the months-long process of creating an app. Students will be able to present their assortment of applications at an open end-of-year event called Meet the Maker, where the students will be able to gain exposure by showcasing their apps to the public. “My favorite experience is watching students come from zero to 100 in a really short time span,” Whalen said. “I mean, the language, the Swift programing language, is written in such a way that all you need is a good attitude, a wisdom-from-failure belief system, the willingness to step out there and do something that seems scary at first, but Swift is written in such a way that you can come in with really, very limited skills in programing and be on your feet and make an app within a couple of months.”

Anthony Luparello, Reporter

An app where Masterclass meets Duolingo, a search service for clean and safe bathrooms and a crypto-currency exchange software. These are only a few of the apps that students in the Mobile Makers program are currently working on.

Mobile Makers is a program installed through Apple that allows students to develop their own apps through learning the fundamentals of programming and how to apply it towards software development. 

“We’ve been learning in Mobile Makers I the basic concepts, and then in Mobile Makers II, we’re more free and we get to do our own thing,” senior Yash Shah said. “I feel like it’s grown throughout the years because Ms. Whalen has had more experience to teach the program, so it’s definitely been more organized since the first couple of years, and it’s definitely given more freedom and more organization to the whole thing.”

The Mobile Makers course is led by Computer Science Mobile App Development teacher Cheri Whalen, who first started the initiative during the 2020 – 2021 school year. According to Whalen, although the launch of the program during online school wasn’t the smoothest, it is one that has grown significantly since. 

“Throughout my career I’ve looked for this type of project-based learning course and I have searched and searched, and Leander Independent School District started an entrepreneurial course through a company in Chicago named Uncharted Learning,” Whalen said. “The entrepreneurial courses just naturally evolved into people, entrepreneurial students [who] wanted their businesses to be at business, so Uncharted Learning started a part of their business called Mobile Makers. Well, it was a natural progression to bring Mobile Makers to LISD. I have been a teacher who in the past has been looking for a course like this, so we were lucky enough to be selected as the first school in LISD and the first school in Texas to offer the Mobile Makers program, and from there we started during COVID. It was quite a struggle to get students on Macs and get started with the curriculum, but now we have our feet under us and quite a few successful apps already, so that’s how it started and hopefully that is how it will grow.”

With a class comes its students, of whom a handful have participated in Mobile Makers in years prior.  

“I first joined the program my junior year, and it seemed to be sort of a newer program at the time when I joined,” senior William Dedominico said. “[O]bviously it was more developed because there was one year previous, but I felt like as we progressed, the program grew a lot better and it was more suited for us students to understand how to make an app in general, and then we had opportunities to apply our learning to make our own apps and present it to other students to school.”

When it comes to Mobile Makers, the big idea is to create an application designed for the App Store, with the process taking place across the entire school year that begins with a series of drafting and testing ideas within the first semester. One of these apps currently in progress is called JustAWeek, an educational platform where one can post custom-made courses for others to learn in order to make some money. 

“[M]y app in general is a learning-based app [where]you pretty much learn a skill over a week, kind of like apps such as Masterclass or Duolingo,” senior Dominic Caruso said. “It’s kind of an easy course type of study, but on any skill and every week you get a new one that you can choose that gets you used to learning a new skill, which I find really important, so I thought that was going to be cool.”

Another app in progress is called Poo-n-Review, a bathroom search app that lets one find clean, usable places in order to use a restroom. 

“At first when they came up with that idea, people thought, oh, that’s silly,” Whalen said. “Or when we were discussing the design of it, it would be dangerous to go to someone’s house to use the restroom or rank or rate a restroom, but when you think about it, that’s how we all used to think about getting in a stranger’s car and now we use Uber. That’s how we thought about staying in a stranger’s home, and now we use Airbnb, so I think it’s a fabulous idea and it hasn’t come to fruition yet, but they’re working on it, and something that sounded really funny may turn into something really useful.”

It’s taught a lot of – not only – computer skills, because I came into the program not knowing pretty much anything about it. I still have a lot to learn, but I have a decent understanding of the surroundings of it, and then on top of that, a lot of organizational skills because whenever you’re making an app, you have to be really organized and understand what your main goal is for it. It’s allowed me to kind of understand how much work goes through to make the basic apps that we use everyday and take for granted, so it’s a lot of fun.”

— Dominic Caruso

In addition to the apps in progress, returning students have finished apps from previous years, such as Shah who completed a program last year called Traverse, a rental app for any item that was made in collaboration with Vista Ridge High School, who used a variety of tools such as GitHub, Version Control, Swift UI and Xcode. 

“We committed our commits, but it was hard to communicate with Vista because they’re a whole different school, but we eventually got it to work,” Shah said. “We scheduled meeting times, and the whole app was about renting things that people don’t really use, so you could put, for example, your lawnmower to rent and then you can make money from your lawnmower from someone else.”

At the end of the school year, students will receive the opportunity to present their apps to the public in an event called Meet the Maker, where members from the community, businesses, parents and students can take a look at the final products of the apps students from the Mobile Makers class have produced. 

“It’s open to anyone who would like to come,” Whalen said. “We had visitors from the community, from Austin, from other dev shops who were really impressed with the level of programing and app building that these students showed during Meet the Maker, and also my hope for Meet the Maker is this year to have more exposure for students who are graduating who can either go on to college or go to work or do both through an internship, through some of the businesses that come to Meet the Maker.”

A notable detail about the Mobile Makers program is the fact that anyone can join, even if one is not familiar with computer programming. 

“It’s taught a lot of – not only – computer skills, because I came into the program not knowing pretty much anything about it,” Caruso said. “I still have a lot to learn, but I have a decent understanding of the surroundings of it, and then on top of that, a lot of organizational skills because whenever you’re making an app, you have to be really organized and understand what your main goal is for it. It’s allowed me to kind of understand how much work goes through to make the basic apps that we use everyday and take for granted, so it’s a lot of fun.”

As Mobile Makers enters its third year at the school, Whalen said she hopes to get the word across about the Mobile Makers program and the vast amount of opportunities that come from it. 

“I just feel like in computer science we teach students little snippets of, ‘this is how you code, this is what it looks like,’” Whalen said. “[W]e have a curriculum that says ‘add two numbers and code adding two numbers’ or ‘make a calculator,’ but nothing that they can see the bigger picture, using and learning, so a course like this engages students because it is the bigger picture. It shows what the end product looks like and how much work it takes to get from design and idea to final marketable product, and this class can do that, and I feel like that’s been the missing link for so long in education and especially in computer science.”