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Students Learn Leadership and Skills Via Mobile App Group

With the support of Vanderbilt University, a pioneering student organization is helping students learn how to develop mobile apps--and land lucrative jobs.

In 2009, undergraduate students at Vanderbilt University (TN) started their own group to learn how to develop mobile apps. In the three years since, the Vanderbilt Mobile Application Team (VMAT), as it is known, has developed three iPhone- and Android-compatible apps for the campus, taught dozens of students how to program mobile apps, and landed several of its founding members lucrative jobs in high technology.

"A key mission of Vanderbilt University is to help students become leaders of the future by encouraging entrepreneurship, technical excellence, and innovation, as well as honing their collaboration and communication skills," said Doug Schmidt, a professor of computer science and one of the faculty members who helped organize VMAT. "We challenge our undergraduate students through groups like VMAT to identify and shape emerging markets and business/technology opportunities."

VMAT meets once a week for two hours, with the more experienced students leading individual projects. "There are about 50 people on our e-mail list at any given time, with about 20 students showing up on any given week," noted Zach McCormick, a junior and past president of VMAT. "We teach skills such as how to use source control systems and external software libraries early on, as they are key components for both VMAT and almost any internship/job that exists in computer science."

The work of VMAT is certainly not confined to those two hours each Sunday, however. "Mobile app development is a huge field that requires more time to learn than just an hour or two a week," explained McCormick. "So our group leaders not only teach basic skills, but provide everyone with the resources needed to continue learning on their own."

It's a message echoed by Ryan Steier, a senior and current president of VMAT. "Our group adds the real application side of development, versus the more theoretical approach that many school courses focus on," he noted. "For me, the biggest advantages of the program have been the resources. iOS development in particular has a large learning curve, but there was more than enough talent around that I was able to absorb it. The professional connections have been a great influence as well, as they have provided jobs and internships for me and many of our students."

Leaders of the Future
Indeed, in a tough economy, the student organization boasts an enviable record of having its members land positions in a wide array of industries. Steier's current job as a software engineer with a defense contractor grew out of VMAT networking. For his part, McCormick used the skills he developed with VMAT to start his own company, which focuses on mobile development and social media consulting.

Among other students from the formative VMAT group are Aaron Thompson, now a software engineer at Apple, and Chris Thompson, who started a company in Nashville that raised $1 million this year to bring to market a product, originally called WreckWatch, that was VMAT's first program.

Industry interest in the group's members remains high. "We get e-mails from businesses in and around Nashville looking for mobile app developers," said McCormick. "These business are generally willing to pay quite well, even if the applicants are students, because it is such a new technology. They realize that our perspective is a good one to have on board, as mobile technology is a defining technology of our generation."

In addition to their own app development projects, the VMAT team created three main campus applications, for both iPhone and Android: Dining, Campus Maps, and Events. The apps, developed early on by VMAT, continue to be updated and refined by the team.

"VMAT demonstrated to the administration and other organizations on campus that students were very interested in putting their classroom-learned skills into practice to solve real-world problems," said Chris Thompson. "This is something many students don't get the opportunity to do in college. It also demonstrated that students could deliver well-written and functional software for a significantly reduced cost compared to traditional software-development processes." 

Open Source Coding
From the very beginning, the group has adhered to an open source credo. "All of our code is open source and released so that anyone can view our work and learn from it," said McCormick. "Our group is meant to promote collaboration and learning, so it makes sense that our work is open for the world to see and use."

This year, VMAT streamlined the process by making its resources more open to other  developers, as well as offering tutorials for the most inexperienced users. For example, the team wrote a walk-through on how to use its repository (where the code can be accessed and worked on remotely), saved it as a Google Doc, and then distributed it.

"Keeping digital information like this allows us to reuse it from year to year, and to grow in size as well," noted Steier.

Intellectual Rights
While some universities have wrestled with the issue of intellectual property rights with respect to student-developed software, Vanderbilt appears to have avoided any such conflicts.

"As a general rule, under Vanderbilt's Policy on Technology, Literary and Artistic Works, all rights in technology developed by faculty, staff, and students are granted to the university," said Janis Elsner of Vanderbilt's Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization. "However, in the case of undergraduate students, ownership is often determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the specific fact set, including whether the VMAT team is working on a project with and for a Vanderbilt department or on their own, collaborating with Vanderbilt faculty and staff, use of the Vanderbilt name and brand, etc."

Schmidt agreed with this interpretation: "Undergraduates can develop apps on their own, as long as they are not working for or being paid by the university." The exception is the iPhone apps, which are licensed by the university and sold through Vanderbilt's iPhone store.

The issue of intellectual property rights is certainly not something that is keeping VMAT members up at night. "If a student comes up with a great idea during a meeting, he's free to add it to one of our projects, or go off on his own and do something with it himself," explained McCormick. "For any of the projects in the VMAT repository, the code becomes the property of the group itself, but can be reused freely by anyone with proper citation."

As VMAT and Vanderbilt faculty stress, however, the point of VMAT is not to churn out profitable software apps. "The students who founded VMAT were pioneers," noted Schmidt. "They did something that few others were doing at the time, and produced something of value for Vanderbilt University. VMAT is a means to an end, and the end is to get students enthusiastic about mobile app development.

"Vanderbilt students are here not just to learn skills. They're here to learn leadership. We're not teaching heads-down computer people. We're building leaders who will be running and managing the companies of the future. We're training students to be entrepreneurs, on the cutting edge. That's why our students are in demand. That's why we hear from other universities on a regular basis who want to do something similar to VMAT."

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