Students create app to track kindergarten readiness

CHAMPAIGN — The United Way has a new app for parents of young children, and it was created this summer by students who were learning themselves.

Working on a strictly volunteer basis — not even for college credit — a total of about 20 Parkland and University of Illinois students built an app this summer to help parents learn about and track their children's kindergarten readiness.

The app will be unveiled Thursday at the United Way's Pack the Park event, which kicks off the organization's annual fundraising campaign and is collecting items needed for local nonprofits. Everyone who stops by will get a card with a code to allow access to the app, and the students who created it will be on hand handing those out, Beverley Baker, the United Way's director of community impact.

The event is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., with family activities starting at 4 p.m., at Hessel Park in Champaign. (For more information about the event, please visit http://www.uwayhelps.org/packthepark.)

The students created it with the guidance of Shiren Mathai, the founder of Lost Points LLC, and Kerris Lee, who's a partner at the information technology company and a member of the Champaign school board.

Last summer, the company worked with local students to make an interactive exhibit at the Orpheum Children's Science Museum in Champaign. They wanted to do something similar this summer, so Lee said they contacted various department heads and students they'd worked with previously to find a way to fill a community need through technology.

Lee serves on the United Way's community impact community and as a result connected with Baker.

The topic of kindergarten readiness struck a chord, Baker said, as the United Way is always looking for new ways to get the message about the topic out to parents.

"We've long been looking for ways to reach every parent with a young child," Baker said.

The students were able to incorporate content from an existing kindergarten readiness calendar into the app and more. The app can also be personalized so parents can track readiness by the age of their own children up to age 5, Baker said.

The students said they learned quite a bit while working on the app this summer, from the actual mobile technology necessary to make it work, to working with students studying different disciplines to understanding what goes into a professional relationship.

Throughout the summer, they met at EnterpriseWorks in the University of Illinois Research Park, and individual teams of students focused on the developing the app, designing it and working on the business side, including promoting it.

The students started by talking about the United Way's timeline, parameters and expectations of the final project, said J.C. Morgan, a continuing education student at Parkland College. They brainstormed together and refined their ideas.

One important part was understanding what was possible, said Eileen Walz, a graduate student studying library and information science, especially considering a tight time frame and the students' capabilities.

Henry Lin, a junior studying computer science at the UI, was the development team's project manager. He said he learned a lot about working together with others, as well as new technical skills, the nuts and bolts of how to create a live news feed and give users the ability to favorite items in it.

Some students on the development team had no experience in creating mobile apps, said Paul Kim, who's a senior in computer science at the UI. They had to make decisions like whether to create the app for iPhone or Android (they ended up using a service that allowed them to build one for both), he said.

The business team put together spots that will run on Champaign, Urbana and Parkland's public access channels and wrote copy for a radio commercial, Morgan said.

The design team, working with the general idea of maintaining the United Way's brand, presented several ideas of how the app could look to the group, and then used feedback to combine different ideas.

That the students attend two different colleges didn't come into play much; Walz said it was more interesting to work with students studying other subjects.

Morgan agreed.

"We just all got along," he said. "We had a challenge to meet."

Kim said he also learned about working with people who aren't friends, but are more like co-workers, and Lin said he felt like it's close to an environment he'd encounter working in business, in which different people have different levels of skill

Lee said he and Mathai have found that students just want to be able to leave their mark on the community.

Mathai said just University of Illinois students participated in last year's project for the Orpheum, so including Parkland students was the next logical step.

While the students learn, another goal is to develop the entrepreneurial talents of students who may end up working locally.

Mathai said he hoped students would learn about working together and communicating, skills they don't necessarily learn in class.

In the future, he'd like to diversify the project by also including high school students and increasing the number of volunteers involved.

Seamus Reilly, the vice president for Institutional Advancement at Parkland College, said the opportunity benefits Parkland students by giving them experience in collaborating with others to complete a project.

"Entrepreneurial skills are applicable in all areas of the workforce: team building, creative problem solving, and innovation are valuable skills in every field," Reilly said. "Further, they gain exposure to the professional world of entrepreneurship and learn first-hand from successful entrepreneurs."

How to get the app

You can download the United Way Pre-K Readiness app for free both on iTunes and the Google Play store for Android phones. Beta versions are available now, and the official versions will be available Thursday.

If you don't have a smart phone, you can also using it by visiting http://unitedway.lostpointsllc.com.

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