By Ed Brennen
Anyone can dream up a good idea for a mobile application. But not everyone has the technical skills required to turn their idea into a real-life app that people can tap and swipe on their phones.
Thanks to a collaboration with Prof. Fred Martin of the Computer Science Department, students in Assoc. Prof. Harry Zhu’s Business Application Development course are now turning their personal finance app ideas into reality — in just one semester.
Using technology called “AppVis,” Manning School of Business students with little to no coding experience are learning to create sophisticated mobile apps in a visual, graphical interface with drag-and-drop building blocks. Developed by Martin and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, AppVis combines the MIT App Inventor with iSENSE, Martin’s web system for sharing and visualizing scientific data.
“People see 4,000 lines of code and think they could never do programming,” says Joshua Bedard, a junior business administration major with a concentration in management information systems (MIS) who was among the first of Zhu’s students to learn AppVis in the fall. “But when you see it in this format, anyone can do it.”
The course, which is an MIS requirement, introduces students to the Java programming language to help prepare them for careers that will likely intertwine with information technology fields. In previous years, Zhu’s students would design their “ideal” app and implement what they could using their nascent Java skills. This year, students are still learning Java — but they’re spending the final month of the course learning AppVis from Martin and his assistants, and then working in small teams to build the Android apps.
“The main objective is to allow students to solve problems that matter to them by applying programming concepts learned in the course,” says Zhu, who has worked with Martin on several grant proposals related to the app-building technology over the past two years. “Students are taking what they learn in Java programming and applying it to App Inventor’s visual programming environment. The versatility of the tool sparks new ideas and unleashes students’ creativity.”
Among the first apps created in the fall were several interest-rate and tax calculators, a stock visualizer and “The Gold Standard,” which shows real-time pricing of precious metals. Junior business administration major Roma Aurora teamed with Josie Nou and Ronald Ramirez on the wryly named “Go Fund Yourself,” a budget planner that helps users visualize their savings goals.
“Developing an application is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” says Aurora, who is now considering adding MIS to her marketing and finance concentrations. “The project really opened my eyes to how much business is related to technology. That’s where the future is.”
Martin, who sat in on the students’ final app presentations, was struck by how excited they were to use the technology.
“Prof. Zhu had them walk through their code in their presentations, and it was clear to me that they were confident in their ability to execute their ideas,” says Martin, who was assisted during the AppVis training by senior computer science major Ashley Hale and Farzeen Harunani, who earned a master’s degree in computer science in December.
While students were supposed to develop an app related to personal finances, Bedard and his teammates, Nzeako Egwuenu and Jeremy Williams, went in a different direction and created a flash card application called “Study Break.”
“We went completely off the trail, but I think we can do something with this beyond the class,” says Bedard, whose team built the app with terms related to entrepreneurship and innovation — but who envisions it being tailored with vocabulary and concepts for any business course.
“The idea is to help students learn business acumen or to refresh what they know without having to find their book or notes,” says Bedard, who can see the app helping prepare students for job interviews. “If they ask you a question during an interview and you can’t respond in terms they want to hear, they don’t think you’re ready. Or when you go into an internship, there’s a learning curve for the acronyms and jargon they use.”
Like most of his classmates, Bedard went into the project with minimal programming experience. He emerged with a newfound appreciation for interdisciplinary collaboration.
“If we had half business students and half computer science students in the same class, it would be incredible,” he says. “We have the business ideas, and they have the skill. That’s how it’s going to work in the real world.”