There’s a Class for That

Writer: 
August 1, 2011
 
Electric: Ge Wang makes sure all systems are go before final concert of the season.

StickWars: Storming the castle.

The world of smartphone app development can be lucrative for those who have the right combination of programming skills, entre-prenurial spirit, and time. For ninety-nine dollars, anyone can purchase a developer’s license from Apple. Once an app is approved for sale in the App Store—essentially a worldwide market-place—the developer rakes in 70 percent of the revenue.

So it’s not surpising that college students, known as much for their empty pockets as for creativity and drive, are interested in developing the next big app. But how should they go about gaining the necessary skills?

At Duke, there’s a class for that.

This past spring, computer science lecturer Robert Duvall and associate professor of the practice Richard Lucic introduced a new course, “Software for Mobile Devices.” The course’s eight upperclassmen broke into teams to complete two projects for campus-based clients: an app that turns an iPad into a multimedia textbook for a course at the Duke Marine Lab, where heavy books and piles of notes can weigh students down in the field; and one that turns the iPad into a diagnostic survey tool for medical-school researchers studying the effectiveness of customized treatment plans.

Over the course of the semester, students met frequently with their clients to deliver formal presentations, answer questions, and just to chat. The students enjoyed working “with real human beings whom the project mattered to,” Duvall says. “That’s not the typical occurrence in a classroom setting, where you’re working through a problem that’s been solved a thousand times before, or making something that will disapper after the semester is over.”

The course focused not just on programming skills—though there was plenty of programming involved—but also on communication. The clients, especially those from the medical school, did not always have technical backgrounds. “There was a beautiful moment in class when a student said they would need to connect up to the server,” Duvall recalls. “One of the doctors asked, ‘What’s a server?’ The student honestly had to figure out how to answer that.”

For many students, it was an exhilarating first step into the world of apps. There are plenty of examples of students who have hit it big.

In 2007, a group of Stanford University undergraduates founded a company called Terriblyclever, which, after working on apps for a number of large corporations, joined with Stanford to create iStanford, a mobile app directed at fellow students. In 2009, Terriblyclever was acquired by academic Web giant Blackboard, which is helping them roll out campus-specific apps around the country.

At Duke, John Eric Hartzog ’09 spent six weeks during the spring of his senior year developing StickWars, a smartphone version of a castle-defender game that racked up millions of downloads and was among the App Store’s top sellers in 2009.