Have an Idea for an App? There's an Office for That

Have an Idea for an App? There's an Office for That

By Amanda BallardUniversity Communications
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RoloDoc, a website and app that connects patients with doctors, was created by two doctors at the UA College of Medicine and featured last week on ABC's "Shark Tank."
RoloDoc, a website and app that connects patients with doctors, was created by two doctors at the UA College of Medicine and featured last week on ABC's "Shark Tank."
The Chemistry by Design app simplifies lengthy, expensive research journals in a simple format at no cost to users.
The Chemistry by Design app simplifies lengthy, expensive research journals in a simple format at no cost to users.
UAbacus is an iPad app that lets students practice their Cranmer-abacus skills in order to better teach blind children to calculate math problems using the tool.
UAbacus is an iPad app that lets students practice their Cranmer-abacus skills in order to better teach blind children to calculate math problems using the tool.

Those who can't do, teach? Not at the University of Arizona.

While the entrepreneurship programs for undergraduates and graduate students are recognized nationally for their ability to prepare students to bring their innovations to the marketplace, UA faculty are embracing that same idea through the creation of mobile apps for educational and commercial use.

In fact, one of those innovations was showcased last week on ABC's "Shark Tank."

Richard Amini, assistant professor in the emergency medicine department at the College of Medicine – Tucson, and his brother Albert Amini, who completed his general surgical residency at the UA, presented RoloDoc, a website and app that enable patients to ask medical questions, book appointments and interact with doctors in a setting similar to social media websites.

The UA's support system for faculty who want to develop apps is about to get a big boost. By the end of 2013, Tech Launch Arizona plans to start an "app center" to assist faculty in developing apps and also help them manage front-end activities like performing focus groups to determine a product's viability and creating marketing plans, said David Allen, executive director of Tech Launch Arizona.

Tech Launch was formed in 2012. With more technological innovations being made on campus and an increased demand for support of their development, the office was needed to support commercialization of UA innovations to enhance their impact.

"At its core, Tech Launch Arizona is all about providing service to faculty," Allen said. "We're all about harnessing the innovative engine that is the UA."

To further encourage faculty innovations, the Faculty Senate implemented new promotion and tenure criteria for faculty this year that consider translational research, technology commercialization and collaborations with industries and communities.

"What we'd like to see is that as people are reviewed for their performance, what they do with mobile apps is part of their review," Allen said. "Is it the same as a publication? No. But does it have an impact on the community? Yes. It's an evolution; it's a new platform."

Mobile Matters, a UA website that serves as a mobile app development resource, showcases several UA-designed apps and outlines the development process, which is coordinated by the Office of Instruction and Assessment.

Multiple faculty members have successfully partnered with the OIA to develop their app ideas.

Gary Carstensen, applications systems analyst and web developer for OIA, said he helps determine the main functions and designs new apps. He said the entire process of creating a publishable product typically takes about one year.

When creating apps, Carstensen uses a program called Flash Professional, which creates the app for Apple, Android and Web formats. Provided the apps are used in the classroom for teaching, the development cost is covered by the University.

Jon Njardarson, professor in chemistry and biochemistry, worked with Carstensen on development of his Chemistry by Design app – which was completed in 2011 and was the OIA's first science app.

Chemistry by Design was Njardarson's vision for years; he knew exactly what he wanted to create but was unable to find funding and support for the project.

"I was a professor at Cornell University before I came here and I couldn't realize this idea because I couldn’t really find partners," he said. " I have a very busy job and don't have time to learn to program properly. I needed a partner. And when I came to the UA, the partner I found was OIA."

Njardarson had created a rough prototype on his own. With help from the OIA and Carstensen's programming skills, he saw his vision come to life in just four months. "I was very happy with that collaboration," he says. "I thought it was fantastic."

Chemistry by Design is both a website and a mobile app geared to graduate students and professionals in the organic chemistry field. The app simplifies lengthy, expensive research journals in a simple format at no cost to users. The Andriod app has a 4.5 star rating on Google Play, which Njardarson considers a "smashing success."

"That's as good as it gets," he said.

Of his UA faculty colleagues, Njardarson said he believes they could benefit from utilizing creative, interesting and impactful tools – such as apps – in their classrooms.

"It's my assumption that most people have no idea about these kinds of capabilities OIA offers," he said. " I believe there are a lot of faculty that have ideas like I have."

He is already looking toward the future for more apps he hopes to create, including one that will serve as a supplemental tool in teaching entry-level chemistry to undergraduates.

"I have many, many ideas," he said. "This is just the beginning."

When L. Penny Rosenblum, associate professor of practice for the College of Education's Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies, was looking for a new outlet to connect with students, she also turned to OIA.

Rosenblum teaches students to work with blind children who learn to perform math problems using a Cranmer abacus – a calculation tool made of a frame with sliding beads that helps blind users solve math problems using the "logic method."

"A lot of people say 'Why don't you just have blind children use a talking calculator?'" Rosenblum said. "If they're using a talking calculator, then they're not doing the computation themselves."

While teaching a distance-learning course, Rosenblum started looking for a way that students could practice abacus computation skills and get feedback outside of class; hence, the creation of UAbacus, an iPad app that allows students to practice their skills on a virtual Cranmer abacus.

Rosenblum plans to use UAbacus in her 2014 spring semester class to help students improve their skills so they can better educate blind children to perform math calculations using an abacus. She says she has been getting positive feedback. "People are telling me they love it so far," she said.

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