Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland held its first-ever Appathon last Saturday, November 7th! Our theme was Balancing a Healthy Lifestyle. My co-VISTA Aliza and I coordinated the event, which took place at our Blazers Club on MLK. We had 45 youth participate, with 14 volunteers and 10 staff members helping to run the program. Breakfast was provided by the fabulous Chef Betty, the Blazers Club’s Nutrition Coordinator and co-founder of the Tin Shed restaurant. Thank you Chef Betty, those biscuits were out of this world! Lunch was provided by Panda Express, through their Panda Cares program. We really appreciate their generous donation of time and food as well! The event ran for 7 hours, from 10 AM to 4 PM, and a total of 14 app blueprints and prototypes were built.
We asked kids and Clubs to arrive half an hour early to ensure that we could begin on time. We began serving breakfast to everyone at 9:30, with the intent to begin the program at 10. It turned out that this was a wise move on our part, as one of our Club vans arrived 45 minutes late.
As kids arrived, we broke them up into groups of 3 kids and set each group up with a volunteer. Volunteers then ate breakfast with their groups and everyone got to know each other a little bit before we started the process.
We split the larger group up into 4 subgroups and had each subgroup go to a room to brainstorm with a staff member about an aspect of healthy living. Our four aspects were Exercise and Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, and a catchall for other aspects kids were interested in. Staff members led discussions with each group for ten minutes about what choices were healthy in each category and what apps might be helpful in getting people to make those good choices, then each group rotated to talk to the next staff member. We spent about an hour brainstorming on different subjects to let kids build their ideas.
We followed this with a group discussion, where each group was able to decide on what sort of app they wanted to build. Lunch was after this.
After lunch, each group got a big piece of paper and some markers, and was asked to draw out a blueprint of what their app would look like. We wanted them to visualize each page of the app and what buttons/features would be there, how they would function, etc. The idea was that they would have the entire app constructed in theory before the start of the coding. This served a couple of functions: we knew that building an app in an unfamiliar system would take a long time, and we wanted kids to have constructed something complete beforehand; and we knew it would be easier for volunteers to guide them through the process with a clear blueprint.
Once groups had a complete blueprint, we gave each group a tablet and laptop and they began using App Inventor to construct their app!
Finally, we invited parents to come and explore all the apps that were created in our Project Fair. We had kids show off their blueprints and ideas as well as their app prototypes, and take the opportunity to go around and see what everyone else had done. We gave kids certificates of achievement for the completion of blueprint and prototype, and one lucky kid won a bike in our Healthy Lifestyles raffle!
Breakfast went pretty smoothly. Setting kids up in groups of 3 was a little haphazard as we had groups coming in at different times and volunteers unsure of themselves in grabbing groups. One volunteer told us that he had a pair of brothers in his group and thought that it might have been better without that being the case, so in the future we should work to try to split up siblings.
Our room rotations with discussion went well, also. Kids really got engaged with the subject of health as they could make apps, but it may have benefited from being shorter by having fewer subjects. I had mixed reviews on this process: kids that I asked were very excited to start work, and staff by and large thought this was an important process. Some volunteers felt that it was overly school-like and took too long, and that their kids lost interest in the process.
The two separate team-brainstorming and then blueprint construction sessions were probably redundant. A lot of teams began drawing out their ideas during the initial brainstorming session, and there seemed to be confusion amongst the groups about why the two sessions were different. Several groups went straight to the app-creation process after lunch. If we were to run the event again, I think having the whole group begin full-scale blueprint construction before lunch and maybe pushing lunch back by a few minutes would produce better results. It would also allow a more clear distinction between pre-lunch brainstorming and post-lunch construction.
All in all, the blueprinting process went well. Kids tended to dream very big, which was exciting, but their projects were far outside of the scope of what could be accomplished in a few hours. We asked volunteers to help guide kids towards goals that were attainable, but some of them struggled in this task. In the future, it would be helpful for us to provide some examples and other guidance both to volunteers and kids to help them stay grounded.
Lunch was a success. The Panda Express folks were prompt, helpful and friendly, and the kids enjoyed the food. One problem that arose from lunch was Panda giving all the kids rubber balloons. Kids blew up these balloons and bounced them up in the air and around for the remainder of the event, causing mass distraction. If Panda ever generously agrees to bring food to another of our events, we must make sure to specify that they give the kids no balloons.
The app creation is where we had our biggest struggles. We suffered from many issues with groups being unable to sync their tablets successfully to App Inventor on the laptops, for reasons that we were never able to fully figure out. This led to a loss of a lot of time that would have proved very useful, and kids got very restless as they were unable to make any progress on their projects. A combination of this restless energy and the fact that kids had just eaten a huge meal made many of them hyper, so we had a bit of free time in the gym for kids who wanted to burn off some energy. If I could run the event again, I’d have a planned gym activity during this time with a staff member in charge of running a large group game. Having this in place ahead of time would have been helpful.
We would also benefit from increased setup ahead of time: making sure each laptop has a full App Inventor client on it that can interface with tablets via USB eliminates network instability as a cause of errors and allows us to test each individual pair ahead of time to discover problems. Volunteers also suggested that we have some time before the app creation to familiarize kids with App Inventor. Though our schedule was tight, some time for this would likely have been very helpful.
The project fair went well, though there was still some distraction from kids and balloons. The youth were very excited to show off their creations and check out other kids’ stuff. It took considerably longer for groups to transition out of the rooms to the project fair than we anticipated, and kids were finished with looking around quicker than we expected as well. This time difference evened out, but building in some extra time for transition and perhaps putting in feedback sheets for kids to write down their impression of others’ apps would be useful in increasing their engagement with each app and helping kids think about what they made.
Kids generally felt positively about how the event went, though some were very disappointed that they were not able to complete more of their event. We need to work harder to establish realistic expectations and make sure that App Inventor does not have the technical difficulties we experienced this time to improve this experience in the future.
All in all, I consider the event a success!