New course plays important role in creating future mobile ‘app’ developers

headshot of Hamzeh RoumaniYork Professor Hamzeh Roumani, a computer scientist in the Lassonde School of Engineering, has developed a new course on net-centric computing that bridges traditional computer science theory with the development of mobile applications.

Hamzeh Roumani

Roumani, who is an award-winning professor and the recipient of the 3M Fellowship (the most prestigious recognition of teaching excellence in Canada), developed the course because he was concerned that students could become less engaged with learning important computer science fundamentals if they could not envision how these concepts were useful.

“As instructors, we may do a great job covering topics or ideas, but it is also important to connect the dots, to see how things are linked,” said Roumani. Many computing courses are structured so that applications are only introduced after the fundamental concepts have been fully established, but sometimes students become impatient, said Roumani.

Roumani decided to design the new course thematically using the mobile computing as a way to demonstrate core concepts in action. Specifically, students in his class apply what they’ve learned to develop mobile applications or “apps” for BlackBerry devices.

“I was seeking a way to unlock really profound theoretical concepts and at the same time engage students,” he said. “It’s a way of getting them to do something they like while still sneaking in the theoretical material.”

Roumani spent the better part of a year building course content and blending theoretical learning with practical activities using the BlackBerry. To help him with the endeavour, Roumani partnered with Research in Motion (RIM), developers of the BlackBerry, through the company’s BlackBerry Academic Program. RIM contributed 30 BlackBerry Bold smartphones for use by the 25 students in the course. The students use the devices and the BlackBerry smartphone WiFi capability to explore networking concepts, the challenges associated with developing an application for a small screen, using the device sensors and synchronizing its contact database.Blackberry mobile phone

RIM contributed 30 BlackBerry Bold smartphones for students to use to develop mobile apps

The resulting course, CSE2041, skillfully teaches students how core concepts are related to infrastructure (networking, databases and markup), servers (http, computer security and multi-tier apps), and client requirements (user interface, functional and event-driven programming).

The pilot course proved to be so popular with students that it is now firmly entrenched in the curriculum. “The course gives students some important exposure to the entire field of computing,” said Roumani. “Many students have come to me to say the course has helped them identify the particular area they like to specialize in. It is giving students a taste of the various computing streams, such as networking, databases, development, theory or security, and this helps them when deciding what to study in third and fourth year.”

This new initiative represents the type of creative, career-driven courses that will be developed at the Lassonde School of Engineering in partnership with industry to ensure students are connected with future employers and understand the impact they can have on people in the real world.

The kinds of mobile apps students are building are as individual as the students. Roumani said that he gives students some suggestions and they start with building apps for contact lists, synchronizing information between a server and the BlackBerry device and more. “Many use the apps they’ve developed on their own devices or they continue to build apps on their own computers,” he said.

RIM has played an integral role in keeping the course current by updating models and operating systems as new versions are created. “Having the physical devices is key,” said Roumani. “One can test apps using a simulator, but this is not the same thing as actually holding the device in your hand and seeing the app you’ve created at work.”

Roumani credits RIM with having the vision and courage to put their devices into the hands of students.  “RIM has provided the BlackBerrys with a no-strings attached approach,” he said.

The course is now part of the core curriculum for York’s programs in computer science, computer security and digital media. Students are highly engaged in their learning, observes Roumani, and RIM is playing an important role in cultivating future generations of highly skilled and creative “imagineers”.

Roumani’s innovative approach of introducing abstract concepts thematically is an example of the experiential pedagogy that will be a hallmark of the Lassonde School.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor