STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

What do you get when you ask teenagers to design an app? You get an awesome app

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

The app design has been months in the making. But on this day – Thursday of last week – the teens are nervous. 

"And we’re scared because we have to present in front of a board of people," says Viviana Farfan, a sophomore at University Prep Academy in Grand Rapids. She’s sitting in the window-lit offices of the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, or WMCAT. Next to her is her friend, Imani Akbar, both of them trying to avoid thinking about their presentation.  

"Have you guys, any of you ever done a presentation like this in front of a business person, a downtown development person?" I ask.

"No," says Akbar.

"Not at all," says Farfan.

Their teacher in this assignment, or project manager, if you will is Samuel Bowles. He's vice president of Mutually Human, a software development company based in Grand Rapids. Since September he’s been leading this small group of teenagers from Grand Rapids Public Schools in developing a new mobile app to help attract young people to the city’s downtown. Bowles says the goal isn’t just to teach kids about technology.

"It is really trying to create as much as we can the experience – a learning experience – but also the experience of interacting with a client and building a project and what a real-life experience would be like for the young people in the class to work in this field," Bowles says.

After a practice run in the conference room, Bowles turns to his team. 

"All right, well now it’s showtime," he says. "You guys ready?"

The students line up along a wall in a conference room. At the other end of the table sits Tim Kelly, planning manager for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., which is the partner organization for this app class.

The students tell him their idea for the app is a game, a totally crazy-sounding game.

Viviana Farfan explains  that in the game you would be a spy working for an evil politician, trying to build a chemical weapon.

"You must find ingredients at several venues or stores in downtown Grand Rapids," Farfan explains in her presentation. "And you’ll be asked to acquire all these ingredients for a chemical weapon in order to brainwash the people of Grand Rapids into voting for an evil politician to become mayor of Grand Rapids."

So, in the real world, game players would be going in and out of stores, scanning codes, getting game points and maybe coupons from the businesses. But in the game, there’s a crazy world of an evil politician spies, and eventually, even zombies.

This part was a surprise to Kelly.

"I’ll be honest, I was not expecting to hear a story about zombies," he says. "But I was very surprised and happy to, because it made it a lot more interesting than anything I ever could have thought of."

The students in this app class all come from Grand Rapids Public Schools, a district with an official graduation rate right around 50%.

WMCAT has a number of after-school classes like the app class. And teen program co-director Becca Guyette of WMCAT says the goal isn’t just to teach the kids. It’s to teach the community about the kids.

"I do believe that these partnerships with the community partners is showing those community partners how amazing our teens really are," she says. 

The amazing teens in the app design class got over their nervousness and finished their presentation. They’ll continue to polish their app design in the coming weeks, with the hope that the app will eventually get made. By recognizing the teen’s talents, and by giving them the opportunity to try, the end result really could benefit the city. Even if it does result in zombies.  

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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