If you ever wondered what it is like to be a spark plug in an engine, you should have been at the Knapp Entrepreneurship Center in September 2009. Around this time the Knapp Center began planning the first KnappLab iPhone App Challenge weekend, an opportunity for students to create a GPS navigation system for the IIT campus. “I want [the Knapp Center] to be a resource for whatever the students are looking for,” said Nik Rokop, managing director of IIT’s Jules F. Knapp Entrepreneurship Center, within the university’s Stuart School of Business, and host to KnappLab, the mobile app lab.
â€œThe goal was to create buzz about iPhone development on campus,â€ said Nikhil Mandrekar, an alumnus of IIT’s business administration and applied science program who set up and until recently ran the app lab. Indeed, the weekend challenge generated significant interest from students and the IIT community, sparked discussions about using mobile applications to benefit IIT and led to the second KnappLab iPhone App Challenge. Not only did the second weekend challenge attract more students, it also brought in more people from the industry, including Mohan Vaze, senior technical leader at Roundarch, a digital consulting firm, and Phil Leslie, founder of the Chicago-based software start-up ProOnGo, LLC, and creator of the eponymous mobile expense reporting application. Whereas the first application was a map of the campus with information about the points of interest, the second application was more robust. The second application included dining menus, a shuttle bus schedule, IIT radio show and information about administrative buildings. â€œIt was an opportunity for industry professionals to see how talented our students are and a good way for students to be introduced to industry professionals,â€ says Mandrekar.
For instance, as the result of participating in one of the weekend challenges, Muyiwa Jimi-Salami, a third year IIT student majoring in Electrical and Computer Engineering, got an internship at ProOnGo. Jimi-Salami is one of eight student programmers employed by ProOnGo.
The enthusiasm for mobile development spread throughout the campus. Michael Saelee, a computer science instructor at IIT, brought his passion for the subject when he taught a mobile application development course during the spring semester. The course teaches students how to develop applications for the iPhone and Android operating system as well as how to apply a variety of software engineering concepts. â€œBy the end of the course, students can develop their own applications, sell them at the iPhone app store and make millions,â€ said Saelee.
The applications students have developed so far have been impressive, many and varied. Although a 3-D game engine was not initially a topic in the course, Saelee decided to teach it after the class showed interest in the topic. Many students pursued the idea further, designing applications on the iPad, such as a game with fighter planes that allows a player to control the plane just by tilting the device.
Several students in the course were also taking an inter-professional projects course (IPRO) unique to IIT. As part of an IPRO and using the skills learned in the mobile application development course, one student designed an interactive trip planner for the Brookfield Zoo.
During the spring semester students had to use their own software or utilize the KnappLab. Recognizing the amount of interest application development was generating, the computer science department at IIT purchased 30 iMacs, as well as several iPads and iPod Touches, for students to use in the coming semesters. According to Saelee, â€œNext year, the possibilities are endless.â€
One of the students who took Saeleeâ€™s mobile application development course is Chris Curtis, who is pursuing a computer science degree at IIT. What did Curtis get out of the class? â€œWell, the short answer is I got a job,â€ said Curtis. â€œBetween the things I learned from Saeleeâ€™s class and coding at the KnappLab and the industry events I heard about through the Knapp Center, I became involved in the Day of Mobile and got an offer.â€ Day of Mobile is an annual mobile conference that was held this year at IIT and sponsored by the Knapp Entrepreneurship Center. A key part of the conference is Mobile Hackathon, an opportunity to design a mobile application and present it at the conference. Curtis won first place in the student competition with Sodexho Votes, an application that enables students, staff and faculty to vote via Twitter about the lunch menu and see real-time results showing the consensus. Curtis caught the attention of several recruiters, including one from Pathfinder Development, a software firm that does projects for startups. He currently has an internship developing iPhone and iPad applications for the company.
While undergraduate students at the main campus were developing their own individual applications, graduate students taking the software development project course at the Rice campus this spring were focusing solely on the IIT mobile application, working on features such as the inclusion of course schedules and university news.
An earlier foray into mobile development on the Rice campus led to the creation of Tourist Eye, a travel and tourism application that enables users to create custom tours and go on tours created by others. With the consent of the class, one student used the concept as the foundation of a company that took off in 2009. The Tourist Eye application is currently available for the Blackberry, iPhone and Android devices.
Recognizing the interest and talent in mobile development on campus, Val Scarlata, Information Technology Management instructor at IIT, pooled students from the KnappLab iPhone Challenge and the IIT mobile application classes and built a coalition. Together faculty and students in computer science, information technology management, and technical communication, in collaboration with the Office of Communications and OTS, are working on the official IIT mobile application for the iPhone and iPad. The university application will provide students and visitors with access to news, events, maps, course listings, emergency alerts and more. The application is scheduled to be released July 1st.
Opportunities for students such as working on the IIT mobile application are important because it puts students at an advantage in their job search. â€œStudents need to know the skills that are in demand and mobile development is really cutting edge,â€ says Scarlata.
Industry experts agree. In a recent interview with Reuters, Mark Suster, a partner with GRP, a Los Angeles-based venture capital firm focused on technology investment, said, â€œI think itâ€™s really innovativeâ€¦ Any institution that understands [the unique issues of the mobile environment] is definitely ahead of most universities.â€ Indeed, few universities have yet to develop practical skill-based curricula that can be directly applied to the market.
With the announcement of IITâ€™s plan to provide iPads to incoming undergraduates, the opportunities for students can only grow. IIT is one of only three schools in that nation that has publicized its intent to give free iPads to all freshmen.
â€œWe are a university that wants to enable the thoughtful use of technology across all aspects of the curriculum-how it supports academic life, how it supports cocurricular activity, learning about what happens with Engineers Without Borders, being up to date with what is happening with an IPRO, what is happening in terms of lectures, when the next intramural game is,â€ says Gerald Doyle, Vice Provost of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid. â€œThe iPad provides a rigorous and easy means for alert notification, supports academic learning in and out of the classroom and lets students know what is happening around campus.â€
The iPad also provides faculty with a unique opportunity to create content and make courses more interactive. Andrew Howard, a biology professor at IIT, plans to use the iPad to deliver lectures and give exams. Of course, in true IIT fashion, students are not sitting on the sidelines. Already a group of students are working on Tabule, an application that facilitates communication and collaboration between students and professors in real time.
Click here to read a recent story on Reuters about the IIT iPad app class.