An app for students, by students

Thanks to the efforts of several students, the College of Engineering (CoE), and the Government of the Student Body (GSB), finding classes, catching CyRide, and staying connected to Iowa State via social media is now much easier for mobile device users.

These features, along with other useful tools for Iowa State students, are available in an app called MyState. The app hit Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Market in July.

The idea for such an app dates back several years ago, as leaders in the CoE recognized the technology as a way of communicating with students and bringing campus tools into one convenient location. While the app has taken on many different forms and features over the last four years, it has kept the central theme of connecting with students intact, and is now ready to spread campus wide.

Laying a foundation

When development of the app first began, Travis Ballstadt, digital media coordinator for Engineering College Relations, was in charge of facilitating the project. Banking on the expertise of colleagues in computer engineering, he asked for their assistance with the project. Before Ballstadt knew it, app development had turned into a Capstone Senior Design project and has since been the responsibility of Iowa State students under his guidance.

“It just made sense to give students the opportunity to develop the app,” explains Ballstadt. “We initially saw the importance of having an app and offering that to our students, but as the project progressed, I valued the input from students on what their peers might want out of the app, and they were excited about getting the new experience.”

The first students to take a crack at the app were a group of engineering seniors. At the time, the CoE-based app was intended to combine CoE features with those useful to all students at Iowa State. When the project was listed as an option for a senior design project, electrical and computer engineering students created a set of features to include and were given two semesters to complete it.

“On campus, you see a lot of students using their iPod touches, iPhones, and other smart devices. At the same time, there are always new students who seem to be looking for the same information, like where a building is located,” notes Jonathan Salvador, project lead for the project and 2011 software engineering alumnus.

“In the coming years, the use of these devices will increase, and we saw this app as being immediately useful for a community in which we belonged—those are the ultimate reasons we chose to work on it,” adds Bailey (Steinfadt) Mader, fellow senior design group member and 2010 computer engineering graduate.

The students began the first semester of the project by researching what users would find valuable in an app and prioritizing what could feasibly be completed by their deadline. Combining these ideas with the college’s initial requirements, the group was able to finalize a basic design.

Their next step was learning the programming language. A majority of the group had little experience in app development, so they had to quickly learn how to code in Objective-C, the selected language for the project.

By the second semester, the group was proficient enough in Objective-C to begin developing the project. Once the app was built, they spent the remainder of their allotted time fixing bugs and working with Ballstadt and the college to get the app and official graphics approved.

As they worked on the project, they faced several challenges such as working without a server, which required the group to use pages on CyRide’s website for the bus schedule rather than creating their own, more-app friendly pages. They also had to display the events calendar without the application programming interface (API), an interface that allows software components to communicate with each other.

In the end, the project turned out to be a success for the group in terms of the final product and the valuable knowledge gained.

“It was a great experience. We learned a lot about the development process and working with a client, which was great to experience before jumping into the working world,” says Mader.

Although the app was officially released soon after many of the group members graduated, it was just the beginning of what the app would become after another ambitious student picked up where the project left off.

“The college expressed an interest in using it more as a prototype for a professionally written app because of our time and resource restrictions, so we always knew what we developed wouldn’t be the final product,” explains Mader. “I am happy that another ISU student took it on after we left and has done such a great job with it.”

Reaching another milestone

After the senior design team finished the app, the project sat idle for quite some time. It wasn’t until college relations decided to change the format of one of its publications that an opportunity for further development arose once again.

“I brought in Tyler Bell to work on the iPad and iPhone app for the college’s alumni magazine Innovate ,” says Ballstadt. “Once Tyler finished that app, we had him pick up where the senior design team left off on the CoE app.”

Bell, a senior in computer science, took the code from the original project and went straight to work enhancing features of the app. At that point Bell and Ballstadt had the freedom to transform the app and add features such as social media platforms.

“The senior design team provided some of the basic foundations like a news reader and CyRide implementation,” Bell explains. “We had to build some of the features from the ground up, but thankfully we were able to build on top of the ones that were already there.”

Bell worked mostly from his dorm, meeting once a week with Ballstadt to talk about the features he needed to incorporate and discuss feedback. With only one introduction to programming course under his belt before starting on the college’s apps, he relied on the help of books and online tutorials for much of the work he developed.

The scope of the CoE app was what challenged Bell most. He had never been part of a project that involved so many details and so much behind-the-scenes work. Ballstadt, who says he personally has little knowledge in creating apps and no time to learn, was pleased as he watched Tyler transform his skills and the app as time progressed.

“He had leeway on how he accomplished tasks, making a lot of his work trial and error,” says Ballstadt. “As he went further in his classes, he learned more about development so things were constantly improving as he found more efficient ways to implement or change features to make the app work faster.”

Adding Android

While Bell was in the final stages of the CoE app, the team decided to bring on another student to create the Android version of the various apps Bell had created. Ballstadt eventually sought the help of Joshua Schroetter, junior in computer engineering who works for the college’s technology support department, to develop the Android apps.

“I knew they were looking to hire someone else to do the Android versions, and I was hoping to get into app development that summer anyways, so when they came to my supervisor, I jumped at the opportunity,” says Schroetter.

Schroetter, much like Bell, employed Android books and Google search to strengthen his knowledge of app building. He spent some time playing around with features to learn what works best before diving into the project.

Since the Apple apps were already available to him, Schroetter was able to use Bell’s code and transform it into the Android version. In some aspects this made it easier and in others, difficulties arose.

“Although Android is similar to iOS, or Apple, versions, there are certain features that just don’t transfer well,” he explains. “Getting the top five stories in the news feed to display correctly took the most time because they seemed to work a lot easier in iOS. I had to create a lot of interesting code to get that same thing accomplished for Android.”

Schroetter was able to complete both apps, and the Innovate app for Android hit Google Play in June. The team has decided not to release the CoE app for Android as the app takes yet another leap forward.

On to the next level

The CoE app for iPhone launched in January 2012 and quickly gained interest on campus. That’s when GSB approached the team about creating MyState, a university-wide, GSB-sponsored app that would share many features included in the CoE app.

Adding news feeds and information from all the colleges across campus to the existing valuable information for students as well as a GPS feature for tracking CyRide, the latest version of the app is now in stores. The CoE app as it is today will become obsolete and updates will cease.

“Moving the app to the university-level is a great idea because it makes Iowa State more competitive, and it will be a handy tool for so many students,” explains Bell. “But, having students involved in development is the key feature because it brings down costs, gives students experience, and creates a sense of local pride.”

The college plans to continue having students involved in the process as the app gains popularity across campus, an approach GSB agrees will remain important for the future of the app.

“Everyone from GSB is excited by the opportunity to work with the College of Engineering and to be able to offer an app that will be useful to students in their everyday lives,” says GSB President Jared Knight.

The partnership will benefit all, giving GSB the tools to implement a long-standing idea, CoE the opportunity to expand its app, and students valuable information at their fingertips.