App to enhance online learning earns MITT students top prize

Originally posted: December 10, 2021

It’s been one of the greatest challenges facing educators—how to keep students engaged during remote learning.

Answering this question were four MITT Software Developer students—Alex Gilmer, Andrew Borondia, Hao Gong, and Jie Chen. Collectively known as Team Awesome Possum, this group competed in the first Sprint to Innovate: The Innovation Challenge hackathon this past month. They had just two days to respond to this quandary and develop a prototype solution before presenting to judges on the final day of the competition.

The Innovation Challenge, sponsored by Access Credit Union, brought together upward of 20 teams from MITT, the University of Manitoba, the University of Winnipeg, and Red River Polytechnic College. The hackathon attracted a diverse field with different backgrounds, many from business programs, and paired each squad with a mentor from a local business.

In their development, Team Awesome Possum went to an area they were very familiar with – gamification. The group of four students created their prototype app, AchieveUp, which uses rewards and achievements to encourage student learning. According to team lead Alex Gilmer, Awesome Possum’s model was the only one in the competition to go from concept to design to presentation without any glitches or hiccups along the way.

Assisting the students were MITT Software Developer Instructor and Internship Coordinator Jessica Watson, and Denise Desrosiers, a Senior Project Consultant with the Government of Manitoba.

As team mentor, what impressed Desrosiers most was the quality of work she saw in spite of the immense pressure placed on the participants’ shoulders. "The thing that surprised me about the students was how unruffled they were despite the monumental task before them," she says. "Though there was such a tight turnaround, they gladly participated in all ideation/design thinking exercises, and did so with creativity and a clear sense of purpose."

For their efforts, Team Awesome Possum won $5,000, and came away with a wealth of experience they can apply to their studies, as well as their future careers. Gilmer reflected on some of these valuable lessons.

Playing to strengths

Andrew Borondia was a natural fit for our Lead Developer. Of the four of us, he probably has the strongest programming skills. He set up our GitHub repository and did most of the program code for our prototype.
Jie Chen took the role of Lead Designer. I’ve previously witnessed first-hand her skills in the realm of aesthetic design. These were skills that the rest of us sorely lacked, and she absolutely blew us away with her creativity.

Hao Gong was the “Concept Planner” because of how instrumental he was in coming up with our Empathy Persona. He helped greatly in the role of “filling in the gaps.” There were many tasks that fell outside of design creativity or program development, and many of those tasks fell to Hao.

Overcoming challenges

Our most difficult challenge, I think, was research. All of our talents fall within the realm of IT/programming. None of us had the insight to perform market research until late in the evening before the judged presentations when our mentor came forward and said “You should test this prototype on some real people.” What followed was a mad scramble to not only find subjects to interview, but also to incorporate our findings into the presentation.

Time management

Time management is key. When working on these kinds of tasks, it’s easy to get derailed with thoughts of “Oh, I could add this other thing . . .” Our mentor helped immensely with time-boxing our creative tasks. “For the next 10 minutes, write down every idea for <blank>.”

Applying lessons from the classroom

One of the first things we learned in class was “How to Google your way out of problems.” This self-oriented problem-solving mindset was critical to our efforts. We may not have used Google literally, but the emphasis on learning to solve your own problems came through. The other thing was technology. Over the course of the last 10 months at MITT, we’ve learned to use so many new technologies and the process of learning is now a snap for us. Using new organizational software like MURAL and Pitch was a breeze.

Practice, practice, practice

We put a lot of practice into our presentation pitch. I think I test delivered it six or seven times before going on stage. This contributed to one of the two major factors that I think held the most influence: we finished the presentation on time. The other major factor, I think, was the lack of major technical malfunctions. I would say that most competitors ran into one of those two problems, and that gave us an edge.

Learn from mistakes

Don’t be afraid of failure. That’s one of the critical steps in innovation. Ideas don’t always work, and that’s okay. The important part of the process is the learning you do along the way. I know that sounds cheesy, but I learned a lot from this event that will carry me for years to come. Winning was just icing on the cake. The team mentor is there to guide you, and you aren’t doing things right unless you’re enlisting their help.

Watson, who was also the staff lead during a Hackathon presented by iQmetrix earlier this year, was elated by the win. "When I heard they had won my reaction was—wow, of course these students did! A feeling of pride for the students and for our school came over me," she says. "Each of the team members have done very well in the Software Developer program; it was awesome to see them come together and build something they were really excited about."

Congratulations Team Awesome Possum!

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