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Bright Ideas

Teens Create App for Downtown Grand Rapids

Samuel Bowles, left, Carlos Calderon, middle, Luke Gaines, right.

Carlos Calderon

Raequan Patterson, left, Viviana Farfan, right.

Samuel Bowles

Students on WMCAT's app design team are discovering their city while learning about design thinking in a unique partnership with Mutually Human and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. 
Teens, teachers, and professionals are working together in Grand Rapids to further engage their rapidly growing city. Through education and real-world implementation, The West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT), software design company Mutually Human, and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) are working to unite an untapped demographic—teens—with the city’s numerous downtown attractions.
WMCAT’s app design class, one of twelve in a brand new engagement program, is slated to develop a mobile application for their “client,” the newly formed DGRI. In the coming months, the class will utilize their after-school education to present their ideas in a real-world application that will hopefully find a place on the mobile devices of Grand Rapids residents, professionals, and visitors alike.
"We really focus on creating a culture of opportunity," says Kim Dabbs, the Executive Director of WMCAT, a continued-learning organization that "addresses unemployment and high school achievement through adult career training and teen arts," according to their website. During their after-school classes twice a week, these Grand Rapids Public Schools high school students, from freshmen to seniors, earn academic credit at both Kendall College and GRPS tuition-free, all while exploring a variety of disciplines in a hands-on and intellectually stimulating atmosphere.
WMCAT’s unique model provides students with "exposure and experience to arts and technology" by grouping twelve students into twelve different sets focused on distinctive projects. Each cohort is then paired with a facilitator—a local professional—who guides the students through a project that is "focused on where the students express they want to see social change," says Dabbs.
This year’s app design class partnered with Mutually Human’s Executive Vice President Samuel Bowles. He's guiding students in the "design-thinking approach" to engage the city of Grand Rapids. Utilizing design thinking, with a focus on the individual’s interaction with technology, students began "talking about design as a general concept," says Bowles, before they even began any app-design work.
"The students love it," says Dabbs. "Samuel does a fantastic job engaging the students as well." Bowles, with almost twenty years of software design experience, jumped at the opportunity to facilitate the class. "I was really excited about the possibility of helping young people get excited about software and what it would mean to be a designer," he says. "It seemed like a really beneficial thing to do."
Bowles, a Grand Rapids native, saw the teaching role as an opportunity in taking "metaphors of the physical world and applying them to the digital world." Thus, building an app for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. would assist the students in bridging the gap between a digital product and the city itself. During the first semester of the class, students individually brainstormed to generate app ideas. Now, in the second semester, the cohort is "entering into this sort of collaborative part of the class," says Bowles.

Though Bowles admits he is not "a trained teacher," his professional experience has allowed him to usher this program through its practical application. As the twelve individual students now begin to work as a team, they are gearing up to pitch their latest idea, a Grand Rapids Zombie app. The app would guide users through downtown, chasing and capturing zombies, a unique interaction that would focus on "unveiling the city" as the game is played.

"I’m trying to give the kids the experience of working on a real project," said Bowles, who will accompany, but not direct, the cohort through their app presentation to Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. in mid-February. The class is "very student directed," says Bowles, who explains that he merely provides the "framework for students to make their own decisions." The students’ presentation will be facilitated by Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. Planning Manager Tim Kelly.

"We really just wanted to kind of engage with the students," says Kelly, who is excited to involve a fresh demographic with the downtown area. "Downtown is for everyone," he says. DGRI, the organization behind this summer’s "Movies in the Park," and other exciting events, is a merger of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), the Downtown Improvement District (DID), the Downtown Alliance, the Monroe North TIFA, and the GR Office of Special Events. "Dedicated to improving downtown GR," DGRI seeks to engage all of its demographics in the budding city’s many attractions.

After first meeting the students and having an opportunity to lead the cohort through a downtown tour, Kelly realized the potential of educating local teens and involving them in the city’s growth. "The walk was really illuminating," he says, as students pointed out exciting new construction and Grand Rapids staples such as the Blue Bridge that they had never before stopped to appreciate. Through their research and design of an app specifically for Grand Rapids, his "hope is that they’ll develop more appreciation of downtown," Kelly says. As he prepares to hear the WMCAT students' presentation, he revels at the teens' passion for the project. "They’re great," said Kelly. "This is one of the more exciting projects that we’ve started in 2014."

Will DGRI integrate the students’ zombie app idea? Will residents and tourists alike soon chase virtual zombies through the streets while learning about the city's new and historical attractions? Or will Bowles and WMCAT return to the drawing board with a new set of design-thinking concepts? It’s all part of the fun of the program. As Dabbs, Bowles, and Kelly continue to work with WMCAT’s app design class and guide the project to completion, only time will tell. Meanwhile, students continue to partake in an educational and lasting experience that will have an impact on their city and its professionals. "This is a really beautiful process, to really see how these partnerships work," says Dabbs. "Everything becomes so real to the students when they are able to see their ideas come to life and affect change within the community."

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