By Margaret King
Elaine Fan’s high school has a rigorous academic schedule, and the pace can put pressure on students. That’s why Elaine used the programming skills she learned in Futures classes from UC San Diego Extension to design an app to help people manage stress.
Elaine is in 11th grade at Westview High School in Torrey Highlands, which has four academic blocks each year instead of semesters or trimesters. This “4x4” system means Westview goes at a faster pace than other schools.
“A lot of my classmates have a ton of stress on them all the time,” Elaine says. When it came time to design an app in her Futures Android Programming classes, she adds, “I decided on a meditation or stress-relieving app.”
Futures was created by UC San Diego Extension in partnership with community members and industry experts to allow high school students to master the skills they will need for the jobs of the future. Courses are organized under headings like Program Your Future for coding and Manage Your Future for business management.
Elaine completed a year-long series of five Android Programming classes held on Saturdays at Extension’s University City Center. Futures currently is offering shorter three-course programs lasting 8 to 9 months. Students who finish a program receive an award of completion and Extension credits. Scholarships are available to cover course costs.
When she heard about the Futures classes, Elaine thought they sounded perfect for her. She had a limited coding background – “just some programming camps here and there,” she says. “I want to become a computer science major in college, and I saw this and I thought it would help me with future classes.”
Elaine had some company as she went through the classes. Her mother, Joy Tan, decided to enroll along with her. Joy works as a software engineer, and she was interested in learning more about app development.
Parents can enroll in most Futures courses along with students if space is available. Futures organizers say having parents in the classes boosts student involvement and success.
Joy took a low-key approach, Elaine says: “She didn’t really help me much – she decided not to because she thought I should be able to do it by myself.”
But at times, Elaine did call on Joy for help with work outside class. “She was there if the teacher wasn’t available,” Elaine says. “She would explain something at home if I didn’t understand it.”
Students in the courses started out with simple projects that became more complex as their knowledge of Java, the language used to program apps for Android devices, increased.
One of Elaine’s favorite activities was creating copycat versions of popular apps like Instagram, Google Maps and Snapchat. “I thought this was really fun – a lot of people use these apps every day, so it was interesting to create an app like one of these and see it come to life,” she says.
In the final class, students got a chance to create their own original apps. Elaine created an app listing vegetarian recipes, but she wanted to do more. With her stressed-out classmates in mind, she focused on an app to help people relax.
She had some background in this area – “My school actually gives us stress-relieving activities,” she notes. She did some research to add to the techniques she had learned at school. “I thought about including breathing activities, relaxing music and relaxing images to help people calm down,” she explains.
Elaine enjoyed the creative aspects of app design. “It was fun creating all the pictures and animations that went into designing an app,” such as an animated breathing exercise, she says. She hasn’t published her app, but she would like to keep working on it in the future if time permits.
It wasn’t hard for Elaine to find time for the Futures classes because she is used to managing a busy schedule. She’s involved in competitive fencing, spending 15 to 20 hours a week on the sport. She also helped start a club called Sisters of STEAM. (STEAM is a variation on STEM, referring to science, technology, engineering and math plus arts.)
“My friends and I go to our middle school and we teach every aspect of STEAM,” she says. For instance, “We brought a friend’s robot to the school and we taught the students about the different aspects of robotics – the mechanical and electrical parts and also the computer science.”
Elaine knows the coding skills she learned in Futures will give her an edge with computer science studies in college. But even in high school, she is reaping dividends from the courses: “I’m taking AP Computer Science, and the coding I learned in Futures has helped me quite a bit – it has transferred over a lot.”
Looking back on the classes, Elaine feels a sense of accomplishment. “There were some parts that were really hard,” she says. “It was challenging, but it was a good type of challenging.”
She says the classes are best suited for students with at least a little programming knowledge. “I would recommend it to someone with a small amount of computer science background,” she says. “That’s important to this class because it moves quite quickly.”
She appreciated that the small class size meant students could get individual attention. “The teachers had a lot of time to spend with students,” she says. “I learned a lot from the one-on-one sessions.”
In fact, the instructors, who are industry experts, left a lasting impression on Elaine. “All the teachers were really experienced,” she says. “They could elaborate on their past professional experiences to get us interested in what they were doing and inspire us to continue.”