UK students develop tech skills and their very own Smartphone apps | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 12.02.2015
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UK students develop tech skills and their very own Smartphone apps

School children as young as 10 are developing and launching their own Smartphone and tablet apps with help from a tech charity. But many more young people are needed to fill the growing tech skills gap.

Apps For Good - Chore Attack app makers (Copyright: DW, Anja Kueppers)

Chore Attack app makers Caitlyn Taylor, Meghan Lyon, Katie Gunn and their teacher Chris Aitkin

"Coding, idea generation, marketing, you name it, we've got it," says 15-year-old Caitlyn Taylor, exuding a confidence that belies her age. Caitlyn is one of the newest – and youngest – faces of the UK's booming tech scene, hailing from just about as far north as you can get on mainland Britain.

Caitlyn and her Wick High School teammates, Meghan Lyon and Katie Gunn from Caithness, Scotland, were brought to London by Apps for Good, a program that trains young students to design Smartphone and tablet applications.

The Wick team has already made its very own app. Called “Chore Attack,” it inspires work-shy kids to do their share of the housework by making it more fun, and adding a little incentive.

Chore Attack was one of seven winners of the 2014 Apps for Good Awards. Like the other winners, the Wick team spent the last six months receiving technical support and business mentoring from Apps for Good and its expert partners. Then they launched Chore Attack, making it available for download on the Apple App Store.

“It’s a problem that we’d all experienced,” said 15-year-old Meghan Lyon, referring to a lack of motivation to do her household chores. “And we thought ‘we need to sort this out,’ because we’ve all experienced being nagged by our parents.” The business-savvy schoolgirl says identifying an obvious gap in the market helped her and her teammates decide on the kind of app they wanted to create.

"Boost of enthusiasm"

Accompanying the girls on their trip to London was their teacher, Chris Aitkin. His is a familiar face at the annual Apps for Good app launch. He has accompanied three winning Wick High School teams in the past three years and says all of his students’ ideas have blossomed, just as their confidence has skyrocketed throughout the experience.

“What we see with our students is that when they identify a problem that can be solved with an app that’s not been solved before, you see an instant boost of enthusiasm, and that carries with them throughout the whole course," Aitkin told DW. "Because they know they’ve got an idea that’s working, that’s good, that’s potentially a competition winner.”

Apps For Good - Bob Schukai (Copyright: DW, Anja Kueppers)

Mentor Bob Schukai: "Simply not enough young people learning the right skills"

It’s this kind of mindset and skill set that the Apps for Good competition wants to encourage. The program works with dozens of schools throughout the UK. The program’s founders hope they can create a new generation of problem solvers and digital makers.

“We ask students to pick something they’re really passionate about in terms of a problem they see in their community," said Iris Lapinsky, the program’s CEO. He believes students should then start thinking about “how tech can transform or start addressing that problem.”

Lapinsky, who laid the foundation for Apps for Good in 2009, says the key to its success is offering teachers support to bring the real world into the classroom.

British PM David Cameron has said equipping school children with tech skills is “vital for the success of our country.” But too many kids still don’t have access to opportunities like those offered by Apps for Good, according to Bob Schukai, the head of Advanced Product Innovation at news agency Thomson Reuters.

Filling the tech skills gap

Schukai is one of the mentors working with the Apps for Good course. He says it’s amazing to see children as young as ten years old bringing an app to market. But he believes that there simply aren’t enough young people currently learning the right skills to fill the growing tech skills gap in the UK.

“Especially with the explosion of mobile development, getting software engineers is at a premium," said Schukai. "Mobile software engineers can command a higher salary than a standard software engineer simply because of the scarcity of the talent.”

In addition to Chore Attack, the latest round of Apps for Good winners deals with a variety of issues affecting their creators’ worlds, from “Pocketmoney Pig,” which helps families track pocket money, to “I’m OK,” which supports teens exploring sexuality and gender.

Apps for Good is currently expanding its program across Europe and also into the United States. It already works with 900 experts in 500 schools and has 25,000 students in its program.

Its reach into Caithness in northern Scotland will almost certainly pay off for the three 15-year-olds at Wick High School. As Caitlyn Taylor from the Chore Attack team says, “it’s given us a whole new set of skills."

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