SPARK App League gives young students chance to code, learn about college

Friday, September 14, 2018

For the sixth year in a row, middle-school and high-school students from across Arizona gathered at the Polytechnic campus for a two-day coding competition Sept. 12–13. 

The event, called the SPARK App League Game Jam, is a collaboration between Arizona State University’s Ira A Fulton Schools of Engineering, the town of Gilbert, Waymo self-driving cars and the Smithsonian, and aims to get kids involved in a college atmosphere early on — while developing helpful code and winning cash prizes

But for the students, the experience is much more rewarding than the prize money. 

Noah Terrill, 14, came to the event for the first time two years ago. 

“When I first got involved with this was two years ago; me and my friend, we just found out about this and we just wanted to give it a try … and we really liked it,” Terrill said. “I think it really develops your STEM and your ability to work with people.”

Derek Konofalski, who runs the program and is a data and technology analyst for the town of Gilbert, said that the need to code was inevitable and that the students were getting in at the right time.

“For students especially, I personally believe that every single person is going to need to know how to code, whether they be young, old — whether they be experienced or inexperienced — everybody's coding for everything now,” Konofalski said. 

The organizer, director and emcee of the event shared his past in code and said that the future would be written in code — a theme that was echoed by every speaker and guest at the venue.

Dana Berchman, the chief digital officer for Gilbert who helped conceive of the idea, said the event not only helps the students but also helps the community.

“In governments, we don’t have big budgets to pay for things like mobile apps, so really the idea came from — I didn’t have $30,000 for a mobile app for the town, so I had to get creative to think of how we could get a mobile app for Gilbert,” Berchman said.

After the town approached ASU, the idea turned a gaming competition, where students could learn how to code — and also get early access to possible career paths in Gilbert.

“We turned it into a gaming competition where they are getting exposed to a college campus, and they get to see what major they might be pursuing and then thinking about that long-term workforce, that pipeline of people that will be our future workers in Gilbert,” Berchman said.

But in addition to the practical applications, the event gives many students their first look at a college campus, something that Berchman said many of them have never thought about.

“A lot of these kids will tell you — even though they're really smart — and their teachers will tell you they’ve never really thought about college,” she said. “And they kind of stand there and they look around. So, it’s that experience you know, and I think for Poly especially ... it's super cool to have an event like this to be focused on such a unique campus.”

Many of the students said that the event got them thinking about college, including Bagdad high school senior Kody Conner, who is looking at a number of schools — including ASU.

Conner said he wants to study video game design and came to get more experience with coding.

“I’ve had one year of coding, but it wasn’t like serious, and so this will be my first time actually coding,” Conner said. “I think it’s important to learn how to code because it is in everything now, everything is technology-based, so I think it’s a good thing to learn, it’s something that you do need in life.”

He also said he liked the format of the event and the inclusion of younger kids.

“I look around and I see a lot of little kids who, when I was their age I was like, 'Coding? I don’t know what that is,' so I think it’s a good way to learn something while having fun, instead of just learning it,” he said.

Other speakers included a systems engineer from Waymo and a representative from the Smithsonian Innovation Spark Lab, who provided the theme for the event: translating a physical prop into a video game.

The unique and focused nature of the Polytechnic campus was featured throughout the competition. In an introduction for the school, Assistant Vice President for Educational Outreach Jonathan Schmitt riled up the crowd by showcasing some of the high-profile projects ASU Polytechnic students have been involved in, including Elon Musk’s hyperloop competition, the ASU racing team and the robotics lab.

“This is a place where you are going to learn not just about jobs you have to fill but how to think, and how to process so that no matter what happens in the future you will be able to continue to stay in pace with things,” Schmitt said. “Here at Poly it's experiential learning; everything we do is hands-on.”

Top photo: Ninth-grade Mesa homeschoolers Sarah Towey (left), 13, Ben Zazick, 13, and Noah Terrill, 14, work together on their app as part of the two-day SPARK App League Game Jam at the Student Union on the Polytechnic campus Wednesday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now