Students Get Opportunity to Present at Apple Headquarters


Gwyneth Semanisin, left, gets a look using a virtual reality program on iPads to bring an interactive model of Apple Park to life at the Apple Visitor Center in Cupertino, Calif. (Courtesy UNO)
By 
University of Nebraska at Omaha

Cupertino, Calif. – There’s the pressure of “Shark Tank” and then there is the pressure of pitching your idea to executives for the world’s most recognizable technology company.

Being invited to the campus of Apple, Inc., is something few individuals have had the opportunity to do – let alone college students. However, that is exactly what a group of first- and second-year students from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and University of Nebraska-Lincoln were able to do thanks to the Walter Scott Jr. Scholarship Program.

“If you would have told me at my graduation from high school that I would be, in less than a year, developing applications and going to Apple’s campus in Cupertino, I would have ... probably laughed in your face,” said Keegan Brown, a freshman computer science major and Scott Scholar.

Brown was one of seven Scott Scholars who recently traveled to California to present in front of Apple executives at the company’s headquarters, showcasing two apps that they recently created during a summer-long workshop, in partnership with Apple, called “AppJam.”

“We had an Apple instructor come to Omaha to give (the students) a course in swift coding,” said Wayne Watkins, executive director of the Walter Scott Jr. Scholarship Program at UNO. “The (Apple) executives have indicated that this is really a major step forward in terms of accessing students in higher education to develop apps in quite a remarkable way.”

In about eight weeks, eight students – some of which hadn’t even begun taking university courses yet – worked together to build apps in support of Nebraska Medicine’s Buffett Cancer Center and UNO’s Maverick Food Pantry, both of which go live on the Apple App Store this January.

The first app will allow visitors at the Buffett Cancer Center to access information about the building’s extensive collection of healing art and the second app will allow those needing the Maverick Food Pantry to submit anonymous requests for resources and get push notification updates on changes to supply levels.

“All of this came together in such a remarkable way,” Watkins said. “These are 18- and 19-year-old students, freshmen and sophomores, who are already developing apps as part of their learning.”

The trip to California also included visits with a patent attorney, a tour of the Apple design lab, a visit to Stanford University’s famous “d.school” design program and a stop at the Computer History Museum.

Gwyneth Semanisin, an electrical engineering major and UNL sophomore from St. Louis studying at the Peter Kiewit Institute in Omaha, said the experience of building the two apps and visiting Apple changed her perspective on the role technology can play in the user experience.

“The keyword they kept using was (the app) a good ‘experience’ for those who kept using it,” she said. “What value does it add to people’s lives? And you know, the work environment? What does this app or product … offer people?”

Harnoor Singh, director of student development for the Walter Scott Jr. Scholarship Program, agreed that the opportunity has been an eye opener for students, not just in building technical skills and critical thinking skills, but critical leadership and collaboration skills as well.

“Ultimately, we want them to develop those power skills that we know many industry partners and graduate schools need and the skills that they’ll need in life: collaboration, communication skills, leadership skills, intercultural competency,” he said. “Apple told us that they were as impressed with their technical development as they were with their social and emotional intelligence and I think that’s huge.”

Brown agreed saying exposure to those skills was vital to feeling comfortable presenting at Apple.

“The first run through we did, I was nervous, swaying back and forth,” Brown said. “Now with the presentation we did today and with the presentations we’ve done in the past, I feel much more comfortable standing in front of a group and being able to articulate both the ideas behind what we’re doing and then the technical side as well.”

Dan Shipp, UNO vice chancellor for student success, said he is excited for the possibilities for using the AppJam model not just with those Scott Scholar program participants but all UNO students.

“We had eight students in one summer, but we think that we have a recipe for something that can be scalable across the entire university,” Shipp said. “We have a great partnership with Apple, and I think, more importantly, we have a student body that’s thirsty and hungry for this kind of work.”

For now, students like Brown and Semanisin are focused on reflecting on a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the Maverick family they built along the way.

“This was really a chance to be in a teamwork environment where everyone’s really dedicated and they’re all really passionate about the same thing,” Semanisin said. “So ... you have to communicate in a different way (where) everyone has their own different, great ideas and we need to come together to put them all together to make an even better product than any single one of us could have even imagined.

“I’m having a great time and I’m very, very lucky to be a part of this kind of reimagining of what higher education is.”

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