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Students in the App Creators class at Vernon Middle School take part in a lively discussion on how to make their code run smoothly before heading to the lab to resume work on an app they’ve been building.

The class is part of a new computer science program being offered to middle school students through Project Lead The Way (PLTW) at Harlingen CISD.

Once in the lab, students get to apply their skills using a trial and error approach. This is problem-solving at its finest and persistence is key for a duo as tenacious as Dathan Trevino and Andres Gomez, both seventh-graders at Vernon.

“We are making an app to match the organs to their correct location on the human body. We are currently working on the digestive system,” says Trevino. “So, the app should be tallying the points, but we are working on the code to get it to do that.”

Using MIT App Inventor, students are working to find the missing pieces of the code to make the educational Build-a-Body App run as it should – awarding points when an organ is matched to its proper location or deducting points when it’s incorrectly placed. MIT App Inventor is a visual programming environment for building Android Apps.

For their final project, students will create their own apps for Android at the end of the semester.

“During the last two or three weeks, students will create their own app from scratch,” says math teacher Humberto Salinas. “They’ve been researching and developing their ideas throughout the year. The idea is to define a problem and create an app that can solve the problem.”

Ultimately the goal is to offer different courses at the middle school level that lead to their corresponding PLTW courses at the high school level.

“This is the first year we’re doing App Creators,” said Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Joseph Villarreal. “What we are trying to do is to build a pipeline. We’re building up to, conceivably, a computer science PLTW component at the high school. The next course that we could offer next year is Computer Science for Innovators and Makers.”

One teacher from each HCISD middle school attended a week-long training in Houston over the summer to become certified to teach the App Creators class.

Salinas says teaching the course has been a big eye-opener to see what these young students can do.

“Teaching this class has shown me that I can learn from the students too. This is helping us all be more open-minded knowing that someone else might have a different solution that also works. I am listening to their ideas. I’m watching them learn, but I’m obtaining knowledge from them as well.”

It is also teaching students to be persistent and not allow setbacks to prevent them from becoming successful.

“It’s not like they’re taking a math test and struggling to figure out the answer,” says Salinas. “In here, it’s like oh messed up, well let’s try something else. Let’s figure it out a different way.”

Project Lead The Way is a nonprofit organization that provides a transformative learning experience for K-12 students and teachers across the U.S. PLTW empowers students to develop and apply in-demand, transportable skills by exploring real-world challenges. Through pathways in computer science, engineering, and biomedical science, students not only learn technical skills, but also learn to solve problems, think critically and creatively, communicate, and collaborate.

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