High school students normally get in trouble for messing around with their phones. Starting this school year, however, phones will be a part of class for about 500 students.
Seven high schools across two Illinois school districts have partnered with coding bootcamp Mobile Makers Academy, to introduce mobile app development into the schools' STEM curriculum.
"We really want to be able to change the mindset that computer science is something that you have to be a rocket scientist to do," said Brandon Passley, founder and CEO of Mobile Makers Academy.
But before Mobile Makers could get into the classroom, there was a good deal of prep work to do.
According to Lazaro Lopez, associate superintendent for teaching and learning for High School District 214, efforts began roughly a year ago. The district's schools aim for students to graduate with not only diplomas, but Advanced Placement courses, or professional certifications. Enrollment for the career pathway for IT, though, was way down.
"There wasn't any energy or excitement around the pathway," he said, which was unfortunate from his perspective given the industry demand for programmers, and what Lopez described as the opportunity for students to access middle class-paying jobs.
The districts eventually teamed up with Mobile Makers Academy to see how they could get students interested and considering IT. Mobile app development is, at least on a broad level, a familiar area for many teenagers.
"All of our students have iPad devices or are using iPhones, and that's the world they live in," Lopez said.
But before teaching students, teachers themselves had to jump into that world too. Passley said they felt they'd already come up with effective ways to teach adults how to code, so they'd teach the teachers.
Lopez said nine teachers, most of whom already had a background in computer science, participated in a four-week program that ran all day Monday to Thursday, with remote sessions on Fridays, as well as about 50 hours of pre-work before the year started. After the program, Mobile Makers instructors were also onsite with some of the teachers.
"It was crazy," said Tom Bredemeier, a teacher at Barrington High School, who handles all the computer science classes. "It's one of the first times in my career I could stop everything I was doing professionally and just think about coding, which I love to do."
Bredemeier has been teaching for nine years. For the preceding 25 he ran a manufacturing company. He's largely self-taught in terms of coding. Initially, diving into a bootcamp and learning Apple's new language Swift was an adjustment.
"The language was new, the whole interface was new, everything that I was working with was something foreign to me, and I felt really frustrated," he said, having to deal with knowing how to execute what he wanted to do, but just not in the right language.
On the third day, the clouds parted. "I can't even put my finger on it, but the lightbulb went off and I was like 'Oh, I get this. That was a huge breakthrough, it was really a very seminal moment for me.'"
Those "ah ha" moments are key. "Whenever you do anything new as a teacher, you're supposed to be the experts in the classroom," Lazaro said. "In many ways, you're learning alongside the students."
Passley said Mobile Makers had a shade of that experience while working with the teachers.
"They come to this with the mindset of 'How am I going to teach this to my students? How am I going to absorb this, then I'm going to pass this on to my students, so I can explain it the best way?" he said.
Those conversations even informed how Mobile Makers was teaching. "They could really help us even find holes in ways we were explaining things — which is fantastic to be able to have someone who, many of them had been teaching for years, would be able to come and help us along the path of how we can teach these things," Passley said.
As the year progresses, Mobile Makers Academy will check in with the schools, and also provide ongoing support for the teachers.
"We have a dedicated team to just support them throughout the year," said Passley. "If they have questions, they can reach out, if there's a topic they're still not comfortable with, we're right there to be able to jump on the phone and talk through or help support them with more material if we need to."
While school has only been in session for a couple of weeks, Bredemeier said his students are engaged. About 70 are in the mobile class. Part of the hope is that they'll continue on in the IT pathway and take classes like AP computer science and data structures.
"We saw a lot of opportunities for [students] to get excited through what's already in the pocket," Passley said, "and helping them program apps on those devices... and really demystify coding for them and show them apps that they use everyday, like Instagram, can be built by them."
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.