In the courtyard of Nova Middle School, small teams of students are pointing smartphones and tablets at each other, making videos.
They’re all working on their submissions for the Verizon Innovative App Challenge, a nationwide competition that taps the inventiveness of middle- and high-school kids while inspiring greater appreciation for STEM — science, engineering, technology and math.
The contest, now in its third year, requires teams of students to submit ideas for apps that can benefit their communities. Eight national winners, out of hundreds of submissions, will win cash, computer gear and the chance to work with an expert from MIT to actually build the app and make it available to the public.
Usually, a school treats the App Challenge as an after-school club and submits one or two, maybe three entries. But at Nova, in Davie, Fla. — as at three other middle schools, in Seattle, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia — the App Challenge has been threaded into a course on business co-sponsored by the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE).
At Nova, 130 students signed up. Since September, they’ve been thinking deeply about the mobile technology they use every day. That’s 19 teams.
As the deadline approached, just before Thanksgiving, teacher Michael Brennan thought 17 of the teams would make the entry deadline. “I’m a little worried about the videos,” he’d said.
He needn’t have. The kids — a mix of ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds and academic standing — worked with maturity rarely seen in eighth graders. With just a minimum of goading from Brennan, they dug into their tasks: Dreaming up applications to help students do their homework or manage the in-school chits they receive for good behavior. Writing essays to explain how the apps will work and how they compare with others on the market. And submitting detailed entry forms — including these videos meant to wow the judges.
“There is a buzz of excitement among all the students who are creating their apps,” said Dr. Jermaine Fleming, the principal, “to the point where they make appointments to meet with the principal to sort of get my take on how their ideas are going and ask me for any feedback that I might have.
“First of all, I am amazed by the dialogue I am having with 12-year-olds about an app that can sort of impact education, or impact the world as a whole. And I just feel a general sense of maturity that you don’t find at this age level.
“This,” Fleming said, “is sort of the epitome of what you want to see in school.”
Verizon donated 25 tablet computers for students to use in class and one for Brennan, a former history teacher who traveled to New York City over the summer for four days of lessons, sponsored by NFTE and taught by a professor affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in how to teach students to build apps.
Brennan believes the class is important “because teaching kids to be self-sufficient is kind of a necessary skill.” The NFTE curriculum encourages students to put their academic lessons to practical use; to think about building their own businesses. And with so much of the economy having gone digital, Brennan said, it makes perfect sense to introduce them to computer skills.
“We once were a nation of builders,” Brennan said. “Let’s get back to that idea. And instead of using concrete and steel, let’s use technology. I think the App Challenge helps kids realize they can be builders, just on a different platform.”
Working on the App Challenge “is helping rewire their brains so they can survive and thrive in this new economy,” said Alice Horn, NFTE’s executive director for South Florida. “Regardless of the business you get involved in, technology is a huge part of it.”
“So for these kids, learning to code early in life, thinking in terms of technology, creating in terms of technology, whether they run a business or work in a business, they will be able to think creatively and make valuable contributions,” Horn added.
Because of technology, Brennan has completely changed the way he teaches. He used to spend each hour giving formal lectures. Now he breaks the class into small work groups, giving kids enough information to start delving into projects on their own, then steps back and lets them go. “It’s how these kids are going to work in the future,” he said — in collaborative groups and on electronic platforms.
The students write down their ideas and chart their progress on laptop computers. Brennan follows along on Google Drive, which gives him the ability to see every student’s contribution, in real time if he wants. To test whether apps are working, the kids use the tablets.
“If it weren’t for Verizon,” Brennan said, “I wouldn’t be able to do this class.”