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Middle School: From Science Projects to App Prototypes

Middle School: From Science Projects to App Prototypes

Technology and science are increasingly revolutionizing our world, both in what we learn and how we learn it. The time has come when schools are looking to integrate these changes into their curriculum.

Science and technology related activities encourage creativity, problem solving, collaboration and the opportunity to engage with ideas in relevant and meaningful ways. The decision to integrate technology is based not only on the fact that it is now, and will probably continue to be, an on-demand job in the future, but also because learning these skills contributes to the stimulation of students’ curiosity and creativity. Middle school is a great time to start exploring career options and thinking about future goals and how to accomplish them.

Fostering Innovation in Middle School

The project begins with Terry Chou.  Terry studied at UC Berkeley to receive both an undergraduate degree in Integrative Biology and a Master’s degree in Education.  She is an experienced science teacher at Miller Middle School.  She has been teaching science for 16 years now, with the last 6 years there in Miller.

Terry’s original idea was to teach a science fair prep class until she learned that there would be at least 35 science fair projects per class to manage –“there was no way I could teach that many science fair projects” she explains.  After much reflection, she realized what she really wanted to teach was innovation.

Terry decided to take a different approach to science and throw a little business into the mix. Being in Silicon Valley definitely invites you to think about business and innovation and merge it with science. The innovation part was key for the project as it allows kids to “do authentic research, because it isn’t that they have to discover new things, it’s that they have to understand what we already know and then move from there and find a new market, a new perspective.”

“do authentic research, because it isn’t that they have to discover new things, it’s that they have to understand what we already know and then move from there and find a new market, a new perspective.”

After doing some research on business and entrepreneurship herself, Terry found something that fitted her business and education philosophy perfectly: the Lean LaunchPad by Steve Blank.  LaunchPad is a methodology to translate evidence-based innovation into products or services that succeed. It clearly differentiates how to approach existing corporations from entrepreneurship and thus, uses a more scientific method that differs from your usual business plan. The methodology is based on the premise that before building a company and selling something, you must first have your customers clearly defined and validate your product. Terry attended a LeanLaunchPad workshop for educators that was scheduled prior to the launch of SEARCH class, and she carefully planned a curriculum based on its methodology and philosophy. Thus, the SEARCH elective was born from that curriculum.

An Elective that Combines Science, Business and Innovation

app wireframes in middle school

It is hands-on experience that will provide students with the skills to find resources to effectively implement an idea and turn it into a tangible product or service, while nurturing an interest in science, business and technology. Such a class would be structured to help students explore the science and tech fields and inspire them to see themselves as possible participants of those fields in the future.

SEARCH is an elective science class to engage kids in middle school who express interest in the sciences and business. As stated on their website, “SEARCH stands for Science Enrichment And Research. It is also the name of the first step taken by entrepreneurs in the customer discovery process to ensure product market fit.” This elective class focuses on three main goals:

  1. Enrich global understanding of science through the study of topics beyond those offered in school.
  2. Learn through improving imperfect solutions in a collaborative and experimental manner.
  3. Make a positive contribution to the community by finding problems and attempt to solve them.

Learning to become innovative thinkers, learning from failures, engaging in real and applicable community problems, and experiencing authentic scientific discovery is all part of this elective where students become active participants in the scientific and business communities. The class, therefore,provides an authentic glimpse into Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurship and innovation scene.

The SEARCH elective looks to appeal to the boys and girls in 7th and 8th grade. Beginning with an organic interest in science and business, students are put into small teams to pitch and vote ideas, validate their business model canvas through customer interviews, create a company webpage, build a prototype and develop presentation skills to face a panel of judges at the end of the class.

After pitching their ideas, students vote for the projects that they wish to develop. For the work involved in building a final product or service, students learn the skill sets for the different tools needed to bring to life each part of their project. For instance, during the development process, students who have web or mobile-based products or apps, can use Justinmind to explore the design and technology that will define their project.

A Prototyping Tool for Everyone: Kids Wireframing Apps with Justinmind

Kids Prototyping with Justinmind

Different tools are available to satisfy the specific needs of each project. For instance, they have Weebly to build the company webpage, TinkerCAD to prototype physical products, and Justinmind for web or mobile app prototyping.

Justinmind was first brought to the teacher’s attention by one of the SEARCH students.  His project solution was an app and it called for a wireframing tool. He had heard and tried out Justinmind before, so he suggested it for the class. But “most of these kids had never even heard of what a wireframe was, until they came to the class” and that is the case for most middle schoolers. On the other hand, most of them know how to use apps and they know that an app can be the solution that responds to a market need. With Justinmind, these students go from product users to product designers.

Kids get the general idea that a wireframing tool will help them tell their story. After the initial introduction of Justinmind to the class, popularity of its use just “organically grew” because it is intuitive and has an easy enough interface to learn in a decent time frame. It was the right wireframing tool to help students translate their ideas into apps and further define those ideas. Everyone creating an app could use it to rapidly put together some pages and simulate the design for immediate feedback.

Students building app wireframes would be able to design a UI quickly, weigh up the pros and cons of their idea, and decide if it works or not. Although great to get ideas on paper, designing it on the computer and simulating it allows students to know if the idea will ultimately solve the intended problem.

“Kids definitely love the simulating part of it, where it definitely looks like an iPhone”

Exploring and learning the skill set for Justinmind could benefit students in more ways than just becoming more technically adept on the computer by learning how to use the latest app prototyping software. Students are given the opportunity to unleash their creative potential as they design, test, and redesign the ideas in their heads.

They would be able to experience first hand how design can be used to solve problems or answer to market needs, and, they would participate in the design of their solution from start to finish. When kids start an app prototype or wireframe and visualize the big picture, they can see what works, what doesn’t, and analyze the overall effectiveness of their designs. From the quick UI on the computer to simulating the final design in a real device, wireframing first gives them the satisfaction of building the app just as they had pictured it.

Moreover, Terry Chou also felt that learning to wireframe mobile or web application could motivate students to bring forward any idea or project in the future.  The potential of these children become further realized as they grow in confidence of their own abilities and their understanding for how the tools of the modern world could be intimately entwined with how they participate in it. This is the beginning of our future leaders. What better place to start the journey than during adolescence?

It’s never too early to take your ideas further

It is not too early for a middle school to lay the groundwork for introducing new ideas into our lives. To learn by doing presents an opportunity to get excited about innovation, as well as to practice problem solving, collaboration and creative thinking.

App Prototyping tools can be adapted to middle school or any other school level to fit each grade’s projects. If the student can easily acquire the appropriate skill set and the interface is friendly enough, then anyone can use it without sacrificing creativity and flexibility.

What can be better than to give tech-savvy kids full of imagination a tool that allows them to take their ideas one step further, ask questions, participate and motivate them to contribute to science, business and technology?   Justinmind is just such an instrument students will find useful to their needs.

Victor Conesa

About the Author

Victor is the Product Manager at Justinmind. His specialties include business analysis, usability, requirements management and prototyping. When not busy doing that he is known to eat or sleep.

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