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App design course expands ways student can help others

October 24, 2022

Bradley-Island is shown at night wearing her firefighter gear in front of a firetruck.

When Emma Bradley-Island signed up for a course in computer science to meet the requirements of her psychology degree, she never imagined it would open the doors to a whole new way of helping people.

The introductory course – CSC 130: World Wide Web and Mobile Applications – was offered fully online this summer in order to reach a broader audience, including members of the wider community and students like Bradley-Island, who don’t live in Victoria.

The popular course is aimed at non-specialists, who are tasked with developing the front-end of their very own web-based apps, using 2D and 3D design strategies and deployment technologies.

“I didn’t realize this course would potentially change my life when I registered – I figured it was just going to be something I had to just check off the box for,” says Bradley-Island, a part-time UVic student who lives in Ontario. “But the course work I did has turned into this passion project and a potential business plan. It has been very empowering.”

Bradley-Island is clearly interested in helping others. She works as a firefighter in Caledon, a community located about 60 kilometers outside Toronto, and volunteers both as a crisis line responder and a rescue instructor.

Drawing on palliative care experience

For the CSC 130 course, Bradley-Island decided to draw on previous volunteer experience at a palliative care facility.

“As a volunteer in palliative care, I was working with people one-on-one, writing down their life stories so that these could be shared with their loved ones,” recalls Bradley-Island. “There was a huge demand for it, but I just couldn’t meet that demand as one person. I figured an app could be a way to reach a much bigger audience and help people to create their stories themselves.”

Using the skills gained during the course, she designed a web-based app that enables people nearing the end of their lives to easily compile their life stories online and share them with others. Users are provided with a series of online prompts to answer questions and to upload multimedia files.

Yvonne Coady, the computer science professor who taught the course this summer, is passionate about encouraging students from diverse disciplines to bring new ideas and approaches to web and mobile app design. One of several faculty members who have taught the course over the years, Coady sees the hands-on course as an effective way to bring greater empathy to computer science and app development.

“My sense is that this course could really help students from many disciplines and backgrounds to see a pathway for changing the world through technology,” says Coady. “We’re working hard to improve diversity in computer science because society needs diverse perspectives and more empathy in the design of its apps. After all these years, it’s really the missing piece.”

Reaching remote communities

Coady hopes to teach CSC 130 fully online each summer for the next several years. Her goal is to try to bring the course to many people and communities that might not be regular UVic students but could really benefit from learning the skills to develop their own web-based applications.

“I’d especially like to help target remote Indigenous communities,” says Coady. “By taking the course, people in remote communities could engage in the same types of opportunities Emma is embarking on – opening new ways for them to have a significant impact on society.”

Coady says the course encourages students to think about people’s needs first when designing apps and then to bring in the technology. “It’s a big part of designing a successful app. You can really develop something that has a deep and lasting impact with that approach.”

About 40 students took the synchronous online course this summer, including Bradley-Island, who had never considered herself at all tech savvy.

Winning the PitchIt Competition

Yet toward the end of the term, when Coady encouraged students to enter their projects in UVic’s Summer PitchIt Competition, Bradley-Island felt confident enough to throw her hat in the ring. (The competition, hosted by the Coast Capital Innovation Centre, is open to all students, staff and alumni and involves pitching an idea for an innovative product or service to a panel of judges.) Shortly before Bradley-Island’s pitch, she had a quick coaching session with Charla Pereira, a principal designer at Microsoft, who joined the class online and whose textbook on design, Think 3D, was used for the course.

All three were thrilled when Bradley-Island was selected as one of six winners.

Ultimately, her success in designing an app that has real potential to help many people has opened up pathways Bradley-Island might never have otherwise considered.

For example, she hopes to eventually commercialize the app and make it available on platforms such as the App Store and Google Play. And, though the app started out as a tool for people in palliative care, she believes it could be expanded to help even more people.

Over the longer term, Bradley-Island says she’d love to get involved in something related to neuroscience and the treatment of PTSD, which she witnesses and hears about frequently in her work as a firefighter.

“I always thought neural computing was a really cool field, but I was really intimidated by it because I had no computer science experience,” she says of the field in which computer programs are made to operate in a manner inspired by the human brain.

“But I have more confidence after taking this course,” she says. “I don’t know where it will all lead, but I am looking forward to the journey.”