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Students Create Apps to Help Communities

In an effort to solve problems in their communities; learn more about programming, development, and marketing; and teach students leadership skills, students across the country are enrolling in programs to help them create their own apps.

Two programs that have sponsored such efforts hosted a panel discussion on student-created apps today at the Digital Media and Learning Conference here in San Francisco. Youth Radio, which has traditionally worked with youth in Oakland, Calif., to facilitate student-created radio pieces, has opened a Media Action Lab where young people partner with community leaders to create apps for smartphones that address community needs. In Washington, students have been working in a program called the Youth APPLab, which partners with middle and high schools in D.C. to provide afterschool programs that focus on STEM subjects. One of the projects is designed to help students create their own apps.

Youths from both projects spoke on the panel this morning. Asha Richardson started working with Youth Radio when she was 16 and was one of the co-founders of the Youth Media Lab. Richardson, now 20, continues to work with the Youth Media Lab to help develop community-centered apps. The lab's first effort was adapting a project that Asiya Wadud, a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, developed to help folks in her neighborhood in Oakland share excess fruit from their backyard trees.

Wadud's project, Forage Oakland, has since been revamped and turned into an app called Forage City. Through Forage Oakland, Wadud communicated with her neighbors to set up times for her to go into their backyards and harvest fruit that would otherwise go to waste. She then helped connect folks who were looking to trade their fruit with other neighbors. Moving this to a digital platform, where Wadud would not have to facilitate every interaction herself, was a step in the direction of making the project self-sustainable, she said.

However, turning Wadud's face-to-face project into a mobile app took more re-imagining than she or her teammates at the Youth Media Lab originally anticipated. The app aims to go beyond just citizens in the communities with overflowing fruit trees. They added restaurants and bakeries with excess food to give away at the end of the night, nonprofit organizations that could use free leftover goods to distribute to those in need, community-supported agriculture shareholders, and farmers' markets. Adding nonprofit organizations into the mix helped achieve the equitable access goal behind the project—the makers of the app wanted the food to be distributed to everyone, not just those who have smartphones, so the nonprofits act as an intermediary in getting those goods in the hands of those in need.

In Washington, the Youth APPLab is working with 20 middle and high school students as well as one elementary school student to teach students how to create apps. The after-school program, which meets twice a week with an optional third day on Fridays, has worked on 30 apps and has completed four so far. Hazma Hawkins, one of the students in the program, created one of the apps, called ColorTap—a game where colors bounce around on the screen and the user touches the right color at the right time to earn points.

Both the Youth Media Lab and the Youth APPLab use App Inventor, a programming tool created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Google that aims to help non-programmers build apps. Founder of the Youth APPLab Leshell Hatley emphasized that the program is not just about teaching kids technology skills, it's also about teaching them how to market products, engage in projects that are meaningful to them, and be leaders in their communities. "It's empowering them to talk about the experiences they have," she said. And the project has real-world connections for students. "Not only do we validate them internally, but they also have validation from all sorts of communities."

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