The high-tech industry’s push to find more software and app programmers has entered the classrooms of A.Y. Jackson Secondary School.
A Grade 10 computer science class at the Glen Cairn high school recently celebrated the creation of 10 apps for the BlackBerry Playbook, teaching tools that were tested out on an enthusiastic group of grade 3 and 4 students at John Young Elementary School.
The students held an app-release party on Jan. 23, unveiling programs that taught math and geography while enjoying a lunch of pizza, soft drinks and juice.
“It was an amazing feeling. The kids play with it and actually enjoy it,” said Melissa Manseau, who together with her fellow students Cameron Wissing and Justin Kim created The Fishygame, an app that teaches basic math schools.
Brendan Marentette and Awalie Hassan produced the Animal Race Xtreme Edition, a game that teaches children basic math skills.
“We talked to the kids and the kids were interested in making a race game with animals,” Marentette said.
The computer science students started the course with no background in programming, first learning the basics of Turing and Flash, a graphic user interface and then moving on to Action Script 3, a coding program that allowed students to generate game mechanics.
Matt Hodgson, a software developer at BlackBerry, formerly known as RIM, who has worked on Twitter applications for the older BlackBerry phones as well as an app for the new BlackBerry 10, visited the class an hour-and-a-half each week last fall, helping the students pick up the basics of programming language and troubleshooting any coding problems.
“I was blown away by the work they did,” said Hodgson. “I wasn’t expecting that much; this was their first programming class.”
Cameron said he wants to one day get a job in the high-tech industry.
“I hope to follow in Matt’s footsteps, try to get a good job, something to do with coding,” he said.
Helen Nowell’s grade 3 and 4 class at John Young acted as the customers for the apps, giving the groups of Grade 10 students direction on what kind of apps they would like.
“The kids told us what they wanted,” said Thao-Tran. “We just made that happen.
Thao-Tran Le-Phuong’s group created an app called !Explosions!, a game where children are asked to match capital cities with provinces.
“They wanted an explosions game,” she said. “There’s bombs and there’s provinces and you just kind of blow them up.
“When we showed them our app, they said, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’”
The John Young students provided art work for the apps, which were scanned onto the computers and manipulated using Adobe Photoshop.
“They needed to make company logos and they needed to make the idea for the game,” said Nowell.
The grade 3 and 4 students also learned how to use scratch, an MIT-developed graphical language designed for young people.
“It was really neat,” said Nowell. “In the design of the program, a lot of the connection is supposed to be through art.”
The children also visited A.Y. Jackson several times last fall and winter to see how the app programs were coming along.
“I think they really enjoyed seeing their artwork turn up on the screen,” Nowell said.
This year is Carla Kirby’s first time teaching the apps development program.
“It surprised me how well it worked and how students were excited,” she said. “It was energizing just to be in the room watching those kids talk.”
The Grade 10 Introduction to Computer Science teacher received training last spring on how to instruct the course.
Starting last fall, Kirby divided her class into 10 groups to work on apps for eight Playbooks donated by RIM.
“They know nothing at the beginning,” she said. “They go from nothing to making pretty amazing apps.”
The students learned the meaning of deadlines, with many of them working to perfect their programs during lunch hours and at home.
“You have to make deadlines, because if you don’t do it those Grade 3s don’t have a product,” Kirby said. “My kids would be letting down the Grade 3s if they’re not able to make the deadlines, which gave my kids a lot more motiviation.”
Working with an industry mentor and creating a product under tight deadlines gives the students a connection to the “real world,” she said.
Kirby, who teaches grade 10, 11 and 12 computer science courses, said students will learn C++ programming in Grade 11 and develop more advanced apps in Grade 12.
This is the first year app programming has been offered at A.Y. Jackson, a course that falls under the umbrella program TechU.me.
TechU.me, a program designed to entice high school students into considering a career in technology, was launched in 2007 by the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, which has since changed its name to Invest Ottawa, and a cluster of high-tech companies that hoped to boost the number of youth entering computer science programs at universities and colleges.
The pilot project ran from 2007-11 in four Ottawa high schools: Earl of March Secondary School, Garneau Catholic high school, Mother Theresa High School and All Saints Catholic High School.
Last September, the program expanded to 19 high schools, which included A.Y. Jackson, with plans to grow to 25 over the next two years.
“The really critical thing that came out of the pilot project was the recipe for success, which is having the high school students working with the elementary students, but also having the industry mentor visit the classroom,” said Maria Smirnoff, a spokeswoman for the Ottawa Network for Education, a division of Invest Ottawa.
The first year of the pilot-project, high school students visited high-tech industries, such as IBM-Canada and Cisco Systems Inc., to experience the work environment.
Over the next four years, the project evolved and became more hands on for the students, said Smirnoff.
Starting in the project’s second year, students worked on building small XO laptops, which were later shipped to schools in Third World countries.
In 2010, Patrick Coxall, a Grade 10 computer science teacher at Mother Theresa High School in Barrhaven, suggested schools teach youth how to program apps for mobile devices such as Playbooks and iPads.
“The teacher, on his own, created model teaching apps,” said Smirnoff. “We took the model and used it in other schools.”
This year, the program received $961,000 in funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario to expand the TechU.Me program from four to 25 high schools over the next three years.
TechU.me has four industry partners: IBM-Canada, Adobe, BlackBerry and Macadamian, which provided classroom space, Playbooks, Adobe Creative Suite licensing, and assistance monitoring the students’ development.
TechU.me also offers science summer camps for grades 6 and 8 students in the Ottawa area, teaching them how to build robots with Lego, social media, app development and website design.
Enrolment in computer science programs at Canadian universities and colleges has gone up since the program started, said Smirnoff.
“But the demand has grown,” she said. “A lot of the partners we’re working with in the industry are saying, ‘We are desperate for talent.’”
Smirnoff said TechU.me aims to remove negative stereotypes associated with a job in high tech and encouraging high school students to consider a career in software programming and app development.
The program is already seeing some success stories, said Smirnoff, such as that of Samira El-Rayyes, a Katimavik woman completing her second year in a bachelor of applied science at the University of Ottawa, where she is majoring in software engineering.
El-Rayyes, 19, never considered a career in computer programming until she entered the TechU.Me program at Earl of March Secondary School.
In 2008, El-Rayyes was finishing Grade 9 and was certain she wanted to study chemistry in university, when she came across a Grade 10 computer science course.
“It was really new to me,” said El-Rayyes. “I didn’t know anything about computer science or java or anything like that.”
The Earl of March student learned how to make games to put on XO laptops.
“I was going into chemistry before that, but I switched,” said El Rayyes. “I really, really liked having a final product in the end.”
This summer, El-Rayyes will be starting a paid internship with Nakima Systems, a company in Kanata.
It helped that when she contacted the company to apply for the internship her industry mentor who taught her introductory programming at Earl of March answered the phone.
“There’s a huge job market,” said El-Rayyes.