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Middle school students found ways to escape ghosts in The Silent Forest, battle monsters in Pyramid Escape, and avoid balloon-popping birds in Piggy Pop — the top three mobile app games at a 2018 AppJam+ showcase. But the students weren’t merely playing the games — they had developed them through the AppJam+ program, part of the Dreams for Schools organization founded by UCI alumnus Nithin Jilla ’13. “The whole experience is a crash course in mobile app development and computer coding, designed to get kids excited about STEM, specifically computer science,” says Jilla. “In creating their own mobile app video games, students are able to create something they see in their everyday lives and relate it back to how versatile knowledge in STEM can be.”

Jilla and his team (also UCI alumni) are now preparing for the Spring 2019 AppJamboree events, a series of four showcases highlighting student work from the latest 10-week program. Teams of up to five middle school students will be presenting their apps, which they built after learning the basics of coding from college mentors. With a total of 111 college students mentoring more than 500 students from 22 schools, this 2019 Spring cohort will be the largest one yet.

Making STEM Approachable and Accessible
It all started back in 2012 with just 43 students. At the time, Jilla was a third-year computer science major in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). Through his work on the ICS Student Council, he had helped develop events like UCI’s Med AppJam to expose fellow students to mobile app development. So when the council was challenged with addressing gaps in STEM education in the K-12 space, Jilla was prepared. Working with Assistant Professor of Computer Science Shannon Alfaro and with support from the Samueli Foundation, he and his team developed the first iteration of the AppJam+ middle school outreach program.

“During the first year, I was not only involved in developing it, but I also played the role of a mentor and taught at the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim,” says Jilla. “I enjoyed seeing the students be inspired and excited about computer science.”

For the first few years, AppJam+ was a project incubated under the OC STEM initiative and UCI, but as it grew, “we began to forge our own vision with Dreams for Schools,” explains Jilla. In 2016, Dreams for Schools became a 501c3 nonprofit organization focused on making STEM “approachable and accessible for all,” with AppJam+ as its main outreach program.

Mentoring from ICS Students
The focus on mobile app development captures student interest, but another critical element is the college-age instructors. “Our mentorship model and ultimately the mentors are the lifeblood of the AppJam+ program,” says Jilla. Working with local universities, including UCI, the program recruits students from majors such as ICS and engineering to serve as AppJam+ mentors. “By sharing their expertise and experiences they’ve garnered through their time at UCI, they are giving the students they mentor a better picture of possible paths they can take in the future.”

UCI computer science major Jasmine Delgado works with students at Kraemer Middle School during the Fall 2018 AppJam+ program.

One such mentor is second-year computer science major Chase Carnaroli, who started coding in middle school after seeing a “Learn to Code” campaign, which inspired him to take the free Khan Academy computer science course. After completing the online training, he was hooked on programing. Years later, when he learned about AppJam+ during his freshman year of college, he thought it was a fantastic opportunity.

“When I was in middle school, there weren’t any programs like AppJam+. I had to learn everything on my own through various online tutorials,” he says. Now, as an AppJam+ mentor, he’s helping to make computer science more accessible to middle school students. “The best part about AppJam+ is that moment of excitement on the students’ faces whenever they finally get a new piece of code to work,” he says. “As a mentor, it’s such a great feeling to see your students succeed and feel empowered by their new programming abilities.”

He adds that the experience has taught him how to be a more effective communicator. “Being able to break down a topic into a simple and easy-to-understand manner is a skill that directly translates to working with other groups — whether it be for class projects or with co-workers,” he explains. “It’s amazing what you can learn while teaching others!”

Jilla agrees that AppJam+ learning is a two-way street. “Both our college mentors and our enrolled middle school students gain technical experience creating apps and develop 21st century life skills such as creativity, critical thinking, technical literacy, communication and collaboration.”

In fact, Carnaroli credits the experience with helping him earn a summer internship as a software engineer at Khan Academy. “I am thrilled for the opportunity to work at the company that originally inspired me to pursue a career in computer science,” he says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the experience I gained from working with AppJam+ helped me land an internship with one of the most impactful education nonprofits in the world.”

Another student who has mentored for the program is Srivarsha Nandula, an ICS major graduating this spring. “The best part about mentoring the students is watching their excitement at the showcase when all of their hard work comes to life,” she says. Based on feedback from at least one student, it seems Nandula’s instruction ignited an interest that will continue well beyond the 10-week program. “One of my students [told] me how she saw herself in the future combining her interest in fashion with her newfound knowledge of CS to launch an app that would help people in fashion,” says Nandula, who recently accepted a full-time job as a program manager at Microsoft. “She thanked me for inspiring her, and it made me so proud to hear that I was able to make such a strong and positive influence in her life.”

As Jilla stresses, these mentors serve as the “foundation” for their teams. “Ultimately, they are the champions who give these kids the confidence to rise up to the seemingly daunting task of developing a mobile app.”

Programming the Future
AppJam+ is now a regional program in both Orange County and Riverside, with plans to further expand across Southern California. In February, Dreams for Schools received a M>PWR Initiative grant from the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, which supports innovative approaches to help youth with disabilities gain exposure to STEAM careers through hands-on experiences. Through this partnership, Dreams for Schools is currently piloting an AppJam+ program specifically for youth with disabilities and learning differences at two schools. This is just part of the Dreams for Schools vision of “programming the future” by empowering students and educators with hands-on learning opportunities.

“With technology where it’s at today, virtually all jobs require some sort of STEM knowledge, specifically technical knowledge,” says Jilla. According to a survey conducted last year, there is a serious shortage of STEM workers in the U.S., creating a growing demand for engaging programs like AppJam+.

“Even if students ultimately don’t decide to enter into a STEM-focused career, STEM engagement provides the opportunity for kids to develop important soft skills like creativity, intellectual curiosity and problem solving.” It was through his own study of computer science at UCI that Jilla says he learned “the importance of problem solving and iterative processes, which have played a key role in how we approach this program — evolving it every season — and focusing on helping solve the larger challenge of integrating computer science education into STEM education early.”

Shani Murray