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O.C. middle school kids learn to build their own apps

Two times seven equals ... ? Twelve-year-old Daniel Le enters "14" on his smartphone emulator, causing a sword on the screen to collide with a robot. Something went wrong, though. The robot should have disappeared, and a rocket ship should show up to take him to the next level of the game.

Using a laptop, Daniel investigates the code running his Android phone app and moves around interlocking puzzle pieces that visually represent its logic. With a little help from UC Irvine students showing him where to look, Daniel finds a piece in the wrong spot and drags it to the correct area, fixing the logic and allowing the game he created to progress.

The Anaheim student is among more than 100 middle-schoolers who built apps over the last two months under the direction of UC Irvine computer science majors. The program, called AppJam+, grew out of similar college-level app-building events at UCI, the latest of which is happening this week.

AppJam+ is designed to expose 12- and 13-year-old students from Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim and Rancho Middle School in Irvine to career opportunities they might not otherwise find.

"The chance for them to actually work with young people in college that are a little closer to their age allows them to see themselves differently and see what the possibility is for their own future," said Kathy Bihr, vice president and executive director of the Tiger Woods Learning Center.

Jacqueline Perez, 12, worked with two other children to make Ninja Math, an app that features a sensei trapped by an evil dragon. To free the sensei, players answer a series of math questions and tap the screen rapidly. She found the characters for her app by doing a Google image search.

Jacqueline and her classmates worked two hours a day twice a week learning the basics of app development. The Google app-development platform, called App Inventor, replaces complicated code with interlocking puzzle pieces representing different functions. The students coded their apps using the puzzle system, loaded them on phones and prepared presentations about their app for parents and judges.

"I think I learned how to make apps," Jacqueline said. "That's cool." She added that her ambitions for the future are to be a teacher or professional softball player. The app she helped create won second place in the middle-school event.

UC Irvine has held two AppJam competitions for university students and launched a third on Friday, a day after the conclusion of the middle-school event. The first two events were focused on Android development, but the latest is for iPad apps.

The UCI medical school handed out more than 100 of Apple's tablets to incoming medical students each year for the past three years and, for this year's competition, computer-science students are teaming up with the medical students. They'll be working together to build, in a week, new medical iPad apps that can help physicians and patients.

The latest UCI competition has 19 teams, while previous events had 10 or fewer; the winner will be selected Monday. Previous winners included Awktalk, an app with conversation prompts to spur discussion between socially awkward students, and an appointment app that provides reminders based on location.

"Our educational system at UC Irvine, or a lot of schools, is not project-based learning. It's theoretical learning," said 19-year-old Nithin Jilla, a mentor for the middle-school competition and organizer of the university-level version.

"Students get better at things by doing."

Contact the writer: 949-229-2426 or

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