Dreaming Big: Smartphone App Class Leads to Real-World Results

Careful not to name specific applications, senior Ariel Chait says, “There are a lot of apps that just kind of do cool things. They don’t increase productivity. They don’t add enjoyment to peoples’ lives.” He shrugs. “They’re really kind of a distraction.”

Whether games like Tetris or utility software like Record, a voice and audio recorder, qualify as distractions is arguable — a key question Professor Nasir Memon of Polytechnic Institute of NYU's Computer Science and Engineering Department asked his class on mobile application programming, first offered in the fall of 2008 and again last autumn. “Dream big,” he says he told his students. “Come up with some idea that would make the world a better place. Not in the sense of Mahatma Gandhi, but something that has value. Otherwise, why are you building this?”

Build, as in create or construct anew. Students who took Professor Memon’s class anticipating prefabricated instruction on how to program an iPhone or Google Android learned to revise their expectations. “The overall trajectory was to try to make something that would be of great use to many people, that would have significant social impact,” says graduate student Chelsea Hash, who took the class in 2009.

Chait agrees. “This class assumed you had a good programming background,” he explains, “and said, ‘Create an app that’s going to make a difference and that people are going to want to buy.’”

Echoes Hash, “If you’re making something people need, then there’s probably a way to make money off it.”

Yet thinking about the bottom line only leads to bottoming out, says Professor Memon, who instead encouraged his students to focus on the value their apps would bring to users’ lives. Students were required to defend their ideas based on that foundation. The result was an “i2e class (invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship), where people were creative, imaginative, had initiative,” says Professor Memon.

Initiative, indeed. Each semester left students eager to explore how their class project might fare in the real world — very well, it turns out. Hash, along with classmates Ulf Schwekendiek and Peter Lee, developed Snip, an intergalactic, hedge-trimming, puzzle game that debuted in the Apple store January 2010 (below is a demo of the game). iSignOn, signature-recognition software for better privacy and improved security, was introduced the same month and developed by Chait and three other students.

He and other classmates also designed another application they call iRun, a real-time social media application for joggers. How does it work? Two joggers — one in Boston, another in San Francisco — can run routes against one another in real-time and measure their performance.

“Realizing that I could, at this point in my undergraduate career, still do things that were meaningful — not just class assignments, but things that could actually affect my finances in the real world,” Chait laughs, “it’s pretty exciting and surprising.”

Being part of a team that sold an application to Apple has since yielded Chait a job with a media company, as well as helped him gain admission to top graduate schools. Those are the kind of results Professor Memon envisioned when he designed the class. He believed mobile applications were going to become increasingly important and that it would be interesting for students to learn about them. “It would also make them very valuable in the job market because it’s a new platform,” he says. “There aren’t many students who have experience with it, and I thought that would help them get a job.”

Innovations that have resulted from the class are themselves products of an innovative curriculum. Professor Memon is modest as he describes the class as “something I’d never done before.” Students couldn’t sign up at will; they had to receive clearance from Professor Memon, who sought those with initiative. “When they have that desire, you just sit back and enjoy,” he says.

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