Spelman College Students Win National Mobile App Competition

If Obama is looking to keep America competitive, he could learn from the science and technology program for women at this historically black institution.

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In his first news conference after his midterm losses, President Obama reminded his audience that the important battle for the U.S. is remaining on top of global competition. If he's looking for a model, he need look no further than Spelman College in Atlanta -- the private, independent, historically black school for women -- and its strong science, technology, engineering and math program (STEM).

In October, undergraduates Jonecia Keels and Jazmine Miller won the 2010 AT&T Big Mobile on Campus Challenge for creating a next-generation e-learning mobile application. Previous winners of the competition were from Harvard and Stanford universities. The women split a $10,000 scholarship and had their choice of a mobile device.

The duo's mobile-only creation is the HBCU Buddy. The app, free on iTunes, educates users about historically black colleges and universities. It has customizable social networking features and information about every HBCU. Michele Brittingham of AT&T Services says the HBCU Buddy "is a very well-put-together and well-thought-out mobile application."

Keels is in her first of two years studying computer engineering at Columbia University. She is part of Spelman's dual-degree engineering program. She spent three years in Atlanta and will receive a Spelman bachelor of science degree. In 2012 she will also earn a bachelor of engineering degree from Columbia. Engineering schools at 12 universities, including Georgia Tech, North Carolina A&T and the University of Michigan, participate in the program. Miller, a computer science major, will graduate from Spelman in 2011. 

Miller says that Spelman's computer and information sciences (CIS) department trained students so well that failure was never an option. And that sentiment isn't just words; CIS students succeed at numerous endeavors.

Both women were co-captains of Spelman's robotics team, the SpelBots, who are sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The SpelBots participated in its fourth International RoboCup tournament and tied for first place in the 2009 RoboCup Japan Open tournament. Founded and coached by CIS Chair Andrew B. Williams, the SpelBots were also the first all-women and African-American undergraduate team to compete. The SpelBots wrote the operating code for the robots to play autonomously, generally a graduate-level task. "It gave us the programming mentality to compete in the applications competition," says Keels.

That same year, Keels and Miller were accepted into a weeklong session at Apple Inc.'s Cocoa Camp, where Apple engineers focused on building iPhone apps. Keels says, "We learned the basics about programming and then went off and taught ourselves the rest." The knowledge proved to be invaluable in the AT&T competition. Keels says, "We are programming geeks and knew that we had an opportunity to win, and a chance to compete and find out how we could do."

To prepare for the competition, for three weeks they worked up a game plan, then spent the next six weeks programming for about eight hours a day. They conferred on Skype and used "a Web repository that allowed us to both touch and change the program in real time."

The challenge began in March 2010 and culminated in September, when AT&T chose three finalists, evaluating the apps for usability, quality, innovation, utility and marketability. "We made a presentation and were informed that we were the grand-prize winners," says Keels.

Since 2006, Spelman has received more than $31 million in grant funding for STEM programs and research. The school ranks second nationally in sending black graduates on to science and math Ph.D. programs, and from 1997 to 2006, it produced 150 students who earned Ph.D.s in science and engineering, according to a National Science Foundation survey.

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