THS students show off computer science skills at App Expo (SLIDESHOW)
Trumbull isn’t Silicon Valley, but one day it might be, thanks to a computer science class that gives students the tools and skills to create their own apps.
And, after only one year, the investment is already paying dividends.
Eleven Trumbull High School students attended the Mobile CSP App Expo at Trinity College in Hartford May 24, along with math and computer science teacher Scott Kaminski, and displayed six mobile apps during a morning showcase that featured 34 Android-available computer programs from eight featured schools.
“The students deserve all the credit for taking a chance,” said Kaminski, who was trained at Trinity for six weeks last summer to be able to teach the AP-level computer science course.
“They had no prior coding knowledge and I learned about the course — Mobile Computer Science Principles (CSP) — through a volunteer training program,” he added. “That we were both able to accomplish this much in our first year is pretty amazing.”
Trumbull High’s representation in Hartford did more than present the apps, which ranged from an outdoor spelling program for pre-kindergarten children to a calorie-counting application that doubles as a counseling tool for students who want to eat healthier. The students were successful in winning an award, too.
Senior Steven Baumann, who partnered with junior Matthew Bedoya, was voted by his peers, teachers, and Trinity faculty as the convention’s third-place prize winner for his app called TranslateU that translates spoken or texted language using bluetooth connectivity.
“It’s like using Siri but with a translation adjustment that’s built in using Google translate and that syncs with bluetooth,” Kaminski explained. “The sender can either text or speak a phrase — for example, ‘How are you?’ — and it will go through fully translated in the selected language to the receiving user on the other end.”
The other products
Like their peers, seniors Meghan Mahar and Rachel Iassogna used MIT’s App Inventor programming language to create an app called Outdoor Spelling, which can be used to teach toddlers the alphabet and installed on Android devices.
“It speaks an animal's name and asks them to name the letter it starts with,” Kaminski described.
A trio of senior boys — Ben Tamarkin, Henry Schott, and Zach Gottschall — also shined in Hartford, demonstrating their app, Math Racer, that can be used to teach the multiplication tables to elementary and middle school students.
Kaminski said what made this app unique is the built-in timer that tracks how fast students are answering the math problems.
“It moves between certain levels, too, which is a nice function,” the proud teacher boasted. “You can go anywhere from beginner level to expert, so every type of student can use it.”
Perhaps the most socially universal app, Fat Facts — the brainchild of seniors Connor Gillis and Taylor Giannetta — provides students with the number of calories in their lunch, in addition to also counseling them if the number of calories is over 800.
“If a student is over the necessary calories at lunch, then they might want to cut back on dinner — that’s one of the things the app tells them,” Kaminski explained. “It’s really all about what you should be eating and helping kids get healthy.”
Juniors Connor Lenz and Ethan Murray were responsible for the app 50 States Facts, which has been evolving since an app expo that was held in Trumbull last December.
The quiz app presents trivia about the 50 states and asks the users to answer questions based on symbols, like a state flag or motto, that are presented once the game begins.
“They’ve kept adding facts to it — there’s a lot of info stored on it and that’s because those two keep entering in new trivia,” Kaminski said.
While most of the apps created were useful for teachers, Agenda Pad was the rare program built by students to assist themselves — and guidance counselors.
Juniors Brian DeNicola and Nick D’Agosto walked away from the December expo with a ton of support over their app, which stores class schedules, notes, reminders, and assignments.
“It’s a very useful tool and was voted the best app in one of my two classes,” Kamnski said. “I think the committee at Trinity Expo selected TranslateU because of the bluetooth connectivity aspect, but Agenda Pad has a lot of good going for it....
“I felt that all of the ones we took up to Hartford were good enough to win,” he added. “Having the dry run earlier in the year really prepared the students — they weren’t nervous because they had already gotten used to pitching their products like salesmen.
Into the great unknown
Kaminski said his student’s dedication and persistence exceeded any expectations he had for the course.
“What began as an announcement in my class last April has really turned into something special,” he said. “I’m lucky they all followed me into this unchartered water.”
Ralph Morelli, a Trinity College professor of computer science, leads the National Science Foundation-funded program that includes an annual app expo as well as training in the summer that aims to teach computer science through the use of app development.
The NSF granted Trinity $900,000 three years ago to train teachers in computer science principles.
Since then, more than three dozen Connecticut teachers have been trained at Trinity, and 100 more from around the country have been taught online.
Kaminski, who was a student last summer, will be going back to the classroom in July — this time as a teacher.
“There’s another AP computer science class at Trumbull High that teaches stuff like java scriptwriting but this one aims to get kids to study computer science to help build mobile apps,” he explained.
A new type of final paper
Trumbull High School held its own and Kaminski said he took the top three apps from each of his two classes to Hartford based on the feedback gathered at the App Expo back in December, which was attended by Superintendent Gary Cialfi and members of the Board of Education.
He added that about 12 classroom hours were dedicated specifically to making each group’s app functional.
“A lot of time went into building the app but it wasn’t the full course,” said the 12-year teacher, who was invited by Trinity to participate in the training course back in April 2015.
“It’s part of the College Board’s regulations to submit a finished product and we wanted to work with them properly on building this curriculum up the right way,” he added. “We worked out all the kinks this year and it’s been a huge success for us so far.”
For students looking to avoid writing a final paper, AP Computer Science Principles might be the perfect fit.
“They submit the app they made along with a small research paper,” Kaminski said, describing the course’s structure.
“It’s currently recognized by College Board and is being weighted as an AP course, but next year when students take it, they will be eligible to receive college credit,” he added.
Not that officially being an AP course should change the class’ registration numbers at all — it’s already booked full for the 2016-2017 school year.
After teaching 39 students this year, Kaminski will take on 50 next fall.
“My favorite part about the course is that kids are asked to be challenged and they’re asked to go out and learn these new skills and use these new tools,” he said.
“My kids never once complained about it,” he added. “They pitched me their ideas early in the year — and they had to be a socially useful app, per the College Board regulations — and they wanted to be successful right from the start.”
One of the hardest parts of teaching the course was being hands-off.
“I had to restrain myself because they’re trying to cure the world and you don’t want to tell them they can’t,” he said. “I had to let them hit their roadblocks and modify their apps.
“Watching them change to succeed was the best,” he added. “The biggest part of the class is problem solving.”
For more information the class’ projects, check out the apps on Kaminski’s website http://skaminski.yolasite.com/mobile-csp.php or visit www.mobile-csp.org. For information about teaching, email Pauline Lake at email@example.com.