Could Playing Cabbie Help Teens Learn How to Drive?

Breaking. Turning. Signaling – and paying attention to the road. Fifteen year-old Preston Bone doesn’t even have a driver’s license yet, but is already putting his taxi cab through its paces.

“In [a] video game I play, you are a taxi driver who has to maneuver around the city,” said Bone. “I started to connect the dots and thought, if we made this educational, kids could use it to practice for the Utah state driver’s license test.”

Bone presented the idea to his Technology Student Association (TSA) team at Wasatch Junior High School in Salt Lake City, UT. The team decided to develop a mobile app concept called Study Taxi. The app would allow teens to become taxi cab drivers navigating city streets, with buttons for acceleration, brakes and turns. Players would earn points for being good drivers and answering questions from passengers. The questions would be modeled after those on the state’s written driving exam. Points would be deducted for bad or inattentive driving, and the game quickly ends if a driver is involved in an accident.

“I think this game would definitely help me prepare for getting my license,” said Bone.

The TSA team from Wasatch Junior High entered the app concept in the 2014-15 Verizon Innovative App Challenge. Verizon, in partnership with TSA, created the challenge to inspire student interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

As excited as they were about the concept, students on the Wasatch team knew their idea could be difficult to turn into a working app. Still, they were up for the challenge.

“Cars are really complicated,” said Addison Richey, an eighth grade member of the team. “To include every part of a car on a mobile screen is a lot!”

“I was surprised this is the idea they came up with,” said Tony Byrom, a technology teacher and TSA advisor at Wasatch Junior High. “The idea itself is really good; it could just be difficult to pull off.”

The concept caught the attention of judges at the 2015 Verizon Innovative App Challenge. Over 1,099 teams from across the country submitted concepts. Wasatch Junior High was one of 90 teams named Best in State, and they advanced as one of the 24 Best in Region teams. The school stopped just short of making it to the final round, where eight schools were named Best in Nation.

“We all feel pretty successful, but we are a little bummed out we didn’t win Best in Nation,” said Bone. “It’s still quite an honor to have made it this far.”

Each Best in Region team earns a $5,000 cash grant for its school to further develop or support a STEM program.

“This was really a student-led project,” said Byrom. “If you get their interest going, they just eat it up.”

“We congratulate these students for taking on this challenge,” said Chris Lewter, regional president at Verizon Wireless. “The App Challenge is a comprehensive contest that tests their writing, production, presentation and critical-thinking skills, all of which are needed to develop solutions to real world problems.”

Next year, Bone will head to high school, where some of his former peers have already started a TSA chapter. “They just started this year, so we intend to use the Verizon Innovative App competition as one of the projects for the chapter in the fall,” said Bone. 

Bones’ current teammates are also ready for next year’s competition. “We have a different app idea already, but I shouldn’t talk too much about that right now,” said Richey.

Both Richey and Bone say Verizon’s competition taught them a lot about teamwork and project management. But they have some advice for other schools looking to enter the Verizon Innovative App Challenge.

“I definitely learned that you need a cohesive group to ensure everything works,” said Bone. ”And everyone needs to know about the app and what it does,” echoed Richey.

Student interest and proficiency in STEM has been nearly stagnant in the United States, especially among women and minorities, despite the fact that approximately 80 percent of all jobs over the next decade will require STEM skills. Both Bone and Richey say they plan to pursue a career in technology; hopefully in video game programming.

“Having the opportunity to help create an app concept has helped further my knowledge and increase my desire to produce digital content,” said Bone. “I’ve learned we live in the most ‘wired age,’ so you can either be sucked in by technology or be the one supplying it. I want to do the supplying.”

Meagan Dorsch is a public relations manager with Verizon Wireless. Follow her on Twitter at: @VZWMeagan.