Today’s lesson: Developing iPhone apps

In what has become a growing trend, a computer science professor at Stetson University in Deland, Fla., recently oversaw the development of an iPhone application created for students, by students.

College students have developed a slew of mobile applications for smart phones in recent years, but few projects have involved undergraduates. University of Southern California graduate engineering students, for example, created an iPhone application last year that gives users access to 6,300 radio stations worldwide for 99 cents. And a Carnegie Mellon University graduate student developed an app that gives control of a person’s personal computer from anywhere in the world.

Last year, 12 Stetson University sophomores enrolled in an Introduction to Software Development course were told to create an iStetson app from scratch–meaning students would have to canvas their campus to see what features their peers would use in an iPhone program.

After extensive interviews with students and campus officials, the dozen rookie software developers created an app that shows the campus commons’ menu, allows access to campus events and class listings each semester, and lets students find other iStetson users using the iPhone’s GPS capabilities.

iStetson was released in July and approved by Apple in October. It’s available free of charge in the Apple Apps Store online.

Daniel Plante, an associate mathematics and computer-science professor who taught the class that created the iStetson app, said the semester-long iPhone project was an ideal exercise for an engaged, active learning environment.

"My philosophy with teaching this class is that students do better when they actually do [something], rather than be passive learners," said Plante, who will incorporate iPhone application construction into the spring 2010 curriculum. "We wanted to introduce something … that had the students doing the majority of the decision making."

Students received iPhones paid for by the school, AT&T provided $10,000 for phone service for application developers and computer hardware, and Apple donated laptops for the computer-science course.

Matt Wozniak, a student in Plante’s first iStetson class, said students were accustomed to demanding course projects that took a few weeks to complete.

But ironing out every logistical and technical detail of creating useful software, he said, was demanding for the second-year undergraduates.

"We had never done anything remotely close to this kind of scale," Wozniak said. "It was just a constant learning experience for every one of us."

Bill Penney, the university’s associate vice president and chief technology officer, said he wanted to incorporate iPhone app development into computer-science courses after he met Stanford University students who created the popular iStanford app.

Two Stanford students made an application that allowed for online tuition payment, access to faculty contact lists, and campus maps, along with many other features. The same students started a company called Terriblyclever, which was sold to software giant Blackboard in July for $4 million.

"[Meeting] those students is … what got me jazzed about doing the same thing here [at Stetson]," Penney said.

Downloading iStetson could prove useful for university students fulfilling cultural credits. Students can earn these credits by attending jazz festivals, art shows, and a number of other events that get students involved in the local community. The iStetson app alerts users to upcoming events that would help satisfy the school’s cultural credit requirement, Wozniak said.

Students focused on useable features in the creation of iStetson, he said, rather than wowing users with high-tech graphics.

"You can build the most technically … amazing app in the world, but if it doesn’t have good features, nobody will use it," he said.

Not all campus-based iPhone entrepreneurs have hailed from graduate and doctorate programs. Deepak Mantena, a University of Mississippi computer-science major, made an iPhone app in 2007 that created a to-do list and offered vocabulary lessons, among other features.

Mantena later launched his own company, called TapeShow.

A Texas State Technical College undergraduate recently released his Spacewalk 3D iPhone app, which gives users a first-person playing experience. The app sells for $1.99 in the Apple App Store.

Wozniak said he never considered iStetson a business venture, but the lessons learned in the four-month assignment could be invaluable for students hoping to capitalize on their app-making experience.

"I never had any expectations to make any money from it," he said. "But it certainly opened the door if any of us want to go down that path and get into mobile development."



Stetson University