UMW Student Creates Learning Game for Elementary School Youngsters

Customized elementary school education? There’s an app for that.

Kindergarteners and first-graders can credit University of Mary Washington junior Jacob Bowman for designing an interactive learning game for iPod Touch devices.

The game is available for free download in the Apple App Store.

The “Short Vowel Mahjong” application, otherwise known as an app, is intended for anyone wanting to reinforce short vowel sounds or start short vowel recognition. In the first three days after it launched, the game was downloaded 109 times.

During the app’s development, Bowman was advised by Associate Professor of Computer Science Jennifer Polack-Wahl.

“He did all the artwork himself, which made it easier to submit it to iTunes,” said Polack-Wahl, who submitted the game to Apple before it was approved.

“I don’t see myself making money off my art, but I do like to incorporate it into computer science,” Bowman, a computer science major, said. “I’ve always had a dream of making video games. It’s kind of on the same wavelength.”

There are additional apps in the works by Bowman and other UMW students, focusing on such activities as coin recognition and animal/environment knowledge testing.

Senior computer science major Jeff McElhannon’s “Ice Cream Addition” app was released recently at the Apple store and is available for free download. In the first week following its late October release, the game was downloaded 238 times.

The “Ice Cream Addition” app uses ice cream scoops to help children understand that different combinations of numbers can be added to achieve the same end result. Reviews on the Apple store website indicated that the app is a helpful teaching tool for young learners, despite their pleas for ice cream afterward.

While anyone can download these games, the “Short Vowell Mahjong” app was designed with Hartwood Elementary students in mind. Polack-Wahl’s daughter, who is a student at Hartwood in Stafford County, served as a beta tester.

Polack-Wahl became involved in the project when Apple approached her in 2009 about designing similar apps with an educational grant. When the funding fell through, Polack-Wahl collaborated with Hartwood kindergarten and first-grade teacher Heather Howe to continue the app development.

Howe recognized the academic weaknesses of her students and searched for games to help solidify concepts for them. She noted that her students often develop skills at different times, and the iPods give them the ability to focus on subjects at an individual level.

“We can find an app that’s specifically working on skills they need to work on,” Howe said.
In the classroom, the iPods are used daily to familiarize the students with the new technology.
“They’re really excited about them. Whenever we have them out, everybody’s really focused on the iPods,” Howe said.

Eighteen iPods were purchased for the Hartwood Elementary class with a $5,000 grant awarded by Pepsi’s Refresh Project. The grant also funded a MacBook for app development and accessories for the iPods.

The work of Bowman was sponsored by UMW’s Jepson Summer Science Institute and he developed the game over the summer. The summer program provided him free room and board as well as compensation for his work.

Bowman is working on version 2.0 of the mahjong app. He said, “I plan to move onto other things, but I can see myself coming back to it.”