Jeff Gelles: High school team puts together a winning app

Chris Bergerson of the Phila. Water Dept. with a Solar Sunflower that monitors soil moisture. It won second place at Switch Philly.
Chris Bergerson of the Phila. Water Dept. with a Solar Sunflower that monitors soil moisture. It won second place at Switch Philly.
Posted: April 26, 2013

Synergy may be one of the more overexposed buzzwords of our era. But it's an inescapable theme in the story behind Workstream, the online-tutoring app that won first-place honors - and $5,000 in seed money - for a team of high schoolers at Tuesday's Switch Philly.

First, put six students in a Saturday program at Temple University designed to stir their interest in math, science, and engineering.

Then invite them to brainstorm for a "hackathon" focused on developing apps or other products addressing problems in our educational system.

Give them some support, tech tools, and assistance from a couple dozen of their less-advanced program-mates.

The result of all that combined brain power and focus? A mobile app that might help other students excel. And maybe, if the stars align, a product that could help support their college educations.

I'm getting a little ahead of the story here, and perhaps overly hopeful on their behalf. As any developer, entrepreneur, or investor will say, the tech world is home to far more failures than Facebooks.

But a little excitement is fair. This whole story, or what may eventually be just the first chapter, played out in less than three weeks, said Temple's Jamie Bracey, who accompanied four of the students at Tuesday's event.

"The first thing was an e-mail, and then suddenly they were in the finals," said Bracey, who oversees the program that brought the students together: the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program, a 40-year-old project that arrived here two years ago.

Funded largely by the Navy - and in danger, as a result, of losing funding after April 30 because of federal budget cuts - Temple MESA currently works with about 375 teens from Philadelphia and the suburbs on weekdays and Saturdays.

One track of the Saturday program centers on mobile apps. And that's what got the Temple MESA team invited, on the first weekend in April, as a late entry to a hackathon devoted to challenges facing educators.

Which brings me back to Workstream, which addresses a frustration almost any student or parent will recognize: how to get help when you can't quite grasp a new concept or challenging problem.

Workstream's answer is an app that links help-seekers to potential tutors, including peers and older students as well as adults. With it, students can get text-based answers to individual questions, or join a group watching a video presentation on a troublesome topic.

How will tutors' quality be assessed? The app uses crowd-sourcing - ratings by those who use the tutoring. The best tutors may be able to benefit by parlaying online ratings into off-line work. "They'll be able to use it as a marketing platform," said Iyasu Watts, a Central High School senior who led Workstream's presentation on Tuesday.

Watts, who plans to study computer science at Temple in the fall, said the app was designed to meet a need in poorer neighborhoods, where families often lack computers and broadband Internet access. "More students and young people in urban communities have access to smartphones than they do to computers," he said.

Tariq Hook, the team's volunteer teacher and vice president of software development for Pennsauken's Enertia Group, said the ideas behind Workstream were entirely the students' own - in particular, the six most advanced students in his Saturday class: Watts and his Central classmate, Zuliesuivie Ball (also Temple-bound); Conestoga High's Makeda Allen; and Stephen Pettus, Darren Davis, and Francisco Castellanos, from George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science.

"They said, 'This is a problem I have. I want access to tutoring, and I want to do it on my mobile phone from the comfort of my home,' " Hook said.

With seed money for tutors, which Bracey said might come from Temple work-study funds, the result could be what she called "a self-sustaining ecosystem for education."

Synergies, as we all know, can have big payoffs.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776, @jeffgelles, or jgelles@phillynews.com. He blogs at www.philly.com/consumer.

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