Watch: PLTW Students Create, Launch an App for Their School District

“If you can teach a kid how to learn, it doesn't matter what they know because they can figure out anything.” – PLTW Computer Science Master Teacher Jeremiah Simmons

This problem-solving philosophy is a cornerstone of PLTW’s pedagogical approach and is ever-present in Jeremiah Simmons’ classroom. Simmons is a computer science teacher at Pattonville High School in Maryland Heights, Missouri, and has earned credentials in PLTW’s Computer Science Principles and Computer Science A courses.

Last spring, the Pattonville School District leaders approached Simmons and a group of his computer science students with a challenge: Create a one-stop-shop mobile app for the district.

“They said, ‘How would you feel about developing an app in-house for the school?’,” said Mitchell Skaggs, a recent Pattonville High School graduate and PLTW alum. “And we accepted.”

Over the summer of 2016, the group of eight rising seniors prepared for the project to come. Then once the 2016-17 school year began in August, the students hit the ground running, working on their app-creation project daily as the main focus of their computer science capstone course.

“It's like it was a job,” said Micah Thompkins, a recent Pattonville High School graduate and PLTW alum. “We're interacting as we would as coworkers. We have a client; we have a due date. It's the most quantifiable, most like a real-world job thing I've done in high school.”

Working in two groups – one group focused on creating an app for iOS and the other focused on creating one for Android – the students faced unfamiliar challenges like developing for iOS and presenting to the school board. In these instances, the lessons instilled in them thanks to Mr. Simmons’ problem-solving philosophy empowered them to clear the hurdles in their path. While the students may not have known the answers when new challenges arose, they used the problem-solving skills they developed in their PLTW classes to come up with solutions.

As Skaggs explains, “I think the experience in a real-world setting in the PLTW classes has really helped prepare me for this because it wasn't actually such a stretch to go from developing an open-ended project and being passionate about it to going to a client who is saying, ‘We need these requirements.’

“You're still passionate about it; it's still your app,” he continued. “It was definitely a learning experience, but it was eased by the kind of project-based structure, because it was just another project with some additions.”

Throughout the app-creation project, the students also built upon the communication and collaboration skills they learned through PLTW when navigating tense negotiations with their colleagues.

“We have a lot of smart people who have opinions, which means that there's often times arguments,” Thompkins said.

“We've grown in the way we discuss because there were a lot of heated, heated discussions at the beginning of the year, but they toned down,” he continued. “People gained more respect for each other. They learned how to interact in ways that they're going to have to interact with others in the real work field.”

Over the course of the school year, the students overcame obstacles and worked together to create an app that now boasts functions and features like district and school calendars, district news, school menus, and school directories. In addition, the app gives users the ability to customize the information they receive; for instance, users can opt to receive updates from any or all of the district’s 11 schools.

“The biggest thing is that it's unique to the iOS and the Android, which a lot of school apps are just ‘cookie cutters,’ we call them,” Thompkins said. “This is a unique app only specific to Pattonville, which is pretty phenomenal to see.”

The students’ app-creation journey culminated on June 1, 2017, when the app went live on both Google Play and the App Store, and the students took to the stage in the Pattonville High auditorium, walked audience members through a live demo of the brand-new app, and fielded questions from attendees.

“They all graduated a week ago, and yet here they are,” Simmons said in an interview before the presentation. “They're putting on this presentation tonight. It's become their piece of work and theirs. It's been amazing to watch and to see.”

Before heading on stage for the final app presentation, the students took time to talk to PLTW about their experience.

When reflecting on his PLTW journey and work on the app-creation project, Thompkins shared that he is confident these experiences will serve him well in the next stages of his life.

“When I was looking at what college I wanted to study at, I went and sat in on a couple of classes at different universities, and what I was noticing was that they were going over things in those second-, even third-year-level courses that I had already learned in high school as a junior,” Thompkins said.

“That's just a phenomenal advantage,” he continued. “It just helps you so much. You go into college, you're already ready. You're already there, you're already in the mindset of how you need to think, you already have the knowledge base – and that is an incredible gift that PLTW can give you.”