Middle school students design app

Teacher advocates for more computer programming instruction

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Ranch View Middle School students Konstantin Zaremski and Neil Trotter’s favorite overnight pastime isn’t watching horror movies, eating junk food or even playing video games. The 13-year-olds stay up into the wee hours writing computer code.

It is their preferred form of recreation, their academic passion and almost undoubtedly the key to their futures.

“This is my sport,” said the 13-year-old Zaremski, indicating a MacBook Pro laptop cradled in his lap.

Inspired by Rock Canyon High School students who last spring won a “Best in State” award in the national Verizon Innovative App Challenge, Zaremski shared with RVMS teacher and CODE Club leader Tiffiny Vaughn his idea for an app. Zaremski and five other CODE Club students worked together to create the app for their Highlands Ranch middle school.

Still in development, the app eventually will function as a student organizer, eliminating paperwork, expediting the exchange of homework between student and teacher, providing a calendar, planner and school directory, among other functions.

Someday, the students hope their app will be available districtwide.

Displaying a level of poise uncharacteristic of middle school students, five of the six boys — all wearing bow ties — presented their results to the Douglas County School Board Aug. 6. They received a standing ovation from the board and audience members.

RVMS teacher Vaughn launched the CODE Club in March. It is the only club of its kind in Douglas County. A $15,000 Douglas County School District innovation grant allowed Vaughn to purchase 10 MacBook Pro computers and 10 iPads, and open the doors to the before- and after-school group.

As a math teacher, Vaughn said she initially was uncertain about leading the club.

“All of these kids started coming, and I realized I didn’t have to be an expert,” she said. “It was unbelievable how fast this happened.”

The club quickly grew to its current 30 members.

Vaughn had tapped into a passion, one whose importance she believes is overlooked by many elementary-level educators. Computer programming is not taught at the elementary or middle school level, something she thinks needs to change. And change quickly.

“This is not part of the core curriculum; it should be,” said Vaughn. “This generation of children is wired to do this. The more we can get teachers to embrace allowing children to go to these sites, create projects to display their learning … We’re going to empower these kids with the tools to pursue their passions. It’s going to help our nation’s economy.”

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that between 2008 and 2018, 1.4 million computing jobs will open in the U.S., with only about 400,000 qualified graduates available to fill them. Legislation introduced in June by Colorado Congressman Jared Polis could change the latter figure. The Computer Science Education Act would redefine computer science as a core academic subject, allowing the use of federal funds for K-12 computer science instruction.

“If we don’t start addressing this issue, our children are not going to be ready for the 21st-century job market,” Vaughn said.

RVMS app developers Zaremski, Trotter, Daniel Petito, Adam Emmelkamp, Sean Rhomberg and Andrew Holmes may be exceptions. But as focused as the 13-year-olds already are, even they can’t predict where their talents might take them.

“The jobs we could have in the future might not even be created yet,” Rhomberg said.