A tiny eighth-grade history class on Lopez Island, Wash., has spent the school year learning enough about state history to create content for a mobile app, inspire a summer-long RV road trip, and potentially shape the curriculum for other students across the state.
Five teenage girls from Lopez Island’s roughly 200-student school didn’t just learn about historical people and places from Washington. They learned about the power of good storytelling, and how technology can engage us with our surroundings rather than distract us from them.
Anthony Rovente is the teacher of the Northwest History class at Lopez Island Middle School, and his friend Tim Fry is the owner of 468 Communications, a firm specializing in communications services and location-based marketing.
The two teamed up as “project managers” on the idea for ProjectWA, billed as history for students, by students. The kids acted as the design and content team, conducting the historical research for information that would live in a mobile app called Washington State Insider. The app is live as of this week in Google Play and the iOS App Store.
Fry told GeekWire that the project was born out of an idea to make Rovente’s history class “a little more interesting for the kids, instead of just learning from a textbook and learning the same old stuff.” He said the students “all walk into class with their iPhones anyway” so ProjectWA would make things “more exciting and more relevant to them.”
Fry, who is originally from Spokane, has lived mostly in Seattle and moved to Lopez full-time two years ago with his wife Kristine, son Henry, 9, and daughter Ruby, 7.
The Washington State Insider app jumps off from recent work Fry has done aimed at tourism and the “game-ification” of exploring. After receiving a grant from San Juan County to build a visitors’ app, he launched the San Juan Islands Insider in May.
“It gives visitors an idea of what they should check out in the islands, incentivizes them to go there and rewards them,” Fry said of the platform, built by Seattle-based Sandcastle Web Design and Development.
The San Juan Islands Insider launched with about 130 different locations in the app, a little more than half of which were businesses which had signed on with their chambers of commerce on each of the islands — San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw — to be rewards locations.
“You accrue the points in your account, and say, for 15 points you get 15 percent off your purchase of $15 or more in a certain store,” Fry said.
After establishing the framework, Fry’s plan is to very easily, cost effectively customize it for different communities or different organizations around the state. Picture the Leavenworth Insider or the Walla Walla Insider or Chelan and so forth.
“But then, well, this could also be used for educational purposes, fundraising purposes, so instead of being a commerce-centric app we made [Washington State Insider] a history-focused app,” Fry said. “And so all the locations are historically significant places around the state and the reward is discounted entry into the Washington State History Museum.”
So instead of the San Juans, you get a map of Washington State and it’s populated with all of the locations that the kids in the class have chosen throughout the semester.
For the girls in Rovente’s history class, the first reaction to the unique curriculum was excitement, quickly followed by a series of questions.
“Are we seriously able to create an app that anybody can download? Are we really able to do this in history class?” Rovente said they asked. “Most of my students had never considered what or who is involved in creating an app, and they initially couldn’t believe they’d be able to do this on little ol’ Lopez Island.”
Fry said for every point collected through the Washington app, he’ll be donating a dollar to Lopez Island schools to go toward new textbooks.
Rovente, who has been a teacher for 12 years, said his goal is to build 21st-century skills in students and that he’s always looking for ways to make history relevant. Using the Fry’s Insider platform made great sense.
“I immediately loved the idea because it would help us teach the skills students need to succeed in the Information Age,” Rovente said. “The Washington State Insider app made the subject matter more meaningful to them. That’s something every teacher strives for.”
For Fry, it was important that the students didn’t get consumed by the technology aspect of the project.
“I didn’t start with technology at all,” Fry said of day one in the class. “I didn’t start with, ‘Hey, we’re gonna build an app.’ Because I wanted them to understand that it’s not just about the app. I don’t really want to focus on the technology too much, to be honest, but that is our society’s platform now. And it’s part of reality. I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that everyone has to be walking around with their noses in their screens. I think there’s a way to leverage the fact that these [devices] are so ubiquitous, to get people to engage in the real world a little more.”
The content in the app is not meant to be all-consuming. Rovente said part of the challenge of the project was “getting middle school students to write about history for a world that’s become accustomed to 140-character sound bites.” He said Fry was constantly reminding the students about the need to grab people’s attention quickly.
“Though the technology he made available to us was fundamental to the project, Tim regularly reminded the students that the impact of that technology would fall flat if they didn’t know how to use it to tell a good story,” Rovente said.
A final assignment for the students was to take a turn in front of the classroom as the five girls presented their longer-form blog posts on endangered historic properties in Washington. The audience was 20 fourth graders from a Lopez Elementary social studies class.
In an email to GeekWire, Rovente shared the girls’ insight and reaction to being involved in the class and ProjectWA. Here are some of their answers to our questions:
What have you liked the most about this class and this project?
- “I liked not only being able to learn about, but also being able to pick, the places we’d study — instead of being handed a book to read and then tested on it. I liked being able to see the final product of our work — instead of working on a bunch of separate assignments that aren’t really connected.” — Shayna, 13
- “Our class is making history by creating our own history app.” — Anna, 14
Has the process sparked a greater interest for you in technology or creating content for apps?
- “It was an interesting experience that helped us learn more about technology while learning about Washington history in a fun way. I’m not sure I’ll get more into technology, but I now have more respect for people who build apps.” — Shayna
Do you have a greater desire to see more of Washington now?
- “I’ve only driven through Leavenworth ‘til now. Now that we’ve created this app, I want to actually see it.” — Ava, 14
What would you say to a friend who is about to take this class for the first time?
- “It’s a good way to learn the history of Washington.” – Mallory, 14
What would you say to someone to convince him or her to download the new app?
- “You can learn about new places that are cool that you never knew about.” — Sonnette, 14
Fry and Rovente both believe that the project doesn’t have to end on Lopez. They are very keen on getting a statewide organization to sponsor ProjectWA as a curriculum that can be taught in other school districts.
“ProjectWA is a great example of the fact that innovation can come from anywhere,” Rovente said. “Here on Lopez Island, a community of about 2,500 people, we talk about ‘punching above our weight.’ School districts across the state have already adopted Lopez School programs — our Garden Program is one example. Other schools could easily replicate what we’ve done with ProjectWA, too. Cool programs with high impact aren’t the monopoly of well-funded schools in wealthy communities.”
Rovente said his students are proud of doing something no other class has done before.
“They hope their hard work will help others better appreciate the unique history of our state,” Rovente said. “I really hope the Washington State Insider app inspires other educators to follow the ProjectWA model.”
Fry will be doing his best to make that a reality when he and his family set out on a two-month journey across the state in an RV that he has turned into a traveling ProjectWA billboard. The goal is to promote his Insider app business model for communities focused on luring tourism and to tout the school project as a viable learning tool.
Fry will be adding locations to the Washington State Insider app along the way, blogging on the ProjectWA website, uploading images to Instagram, and quizzing his own kids on state history.
“I think we’ve hit on something,” Fry said. “So I think ultimately success for ProjectWA is that ProjectWA is an ongoing project. I think there’s some real potential here. If we can get these kids on Lopez Island interested in state history, I bet we can get a few more around the state.”