Today on ArtistThink we welcome Peter Simpson, an educator turned app developer. Creativity and technology are linked and today let’s see one way creativity has been expressed via contemporary tech culture. Thanks Peter for your time today!

Carrie: What is First Class Standing?

FCS is the first company to make interactive Biology Apps for the Apple & Android market.  Our Apps give students a chance to interact with the subject by moving molecules, breaking and building bonds, and making a variety of other choices as they make their way through cellular processes.

Peter's desktop. The planning and research space!

Peter’s desktop. The planning and research space!

Carrie: How did you get the idea for your project?

It was a culmination of things. I’m a Biology teacher with an MBA who happened to have some friends who were developing their own Apps. This particular background practically led me to the project. The eureka moment happened while I was teaching a lesson on DNA replication in a very old fashioned, non-interactive way with drawings on a white board. It was so frustrating trying to get the idea of a fluid, dynamic process across with this medium. When I looked out to the crowd for questions I noticed that one of my students was immersed in her iPad, and I remember thinking “I wonder if she’s using some sort of DNA replication App?” She was playing Fruit Ninja. A quick search showed that there was nothing of the sort available in the iTunes or Android market place so I decided to build it.

Carrie: How did you decide which biological processes to create apps for first?

Most biochemical processes are particularly difficult for students. There are a number of reasons for this. The biggest reason, other than lack of an appropriate Chemistry background, is the way diagrams in textbooks are oversimplified. While this aids in clarity it prevents students from seeing the full picture. Chemicals are always viewed in isolation when they should be shown interacting with the machinery of the body. The second issue is that there are no meaningful ways for students to interact with these processes. I think that the medium that the iPad and today’s smartphones provide can help address these problems. Cellular respiration and photosynthesis are the toughest topics to teach/learn because of this so I started there.

App learning screen

App learning screen

Carrie: Can you explain the process of developing an app?

This is a big question that took me the better part of the past two years to figure out. If you’ve got deep pockets then you can just go to one of the many App development companies that have sprung up over the years. Some might charge five times what I ended up paying, but they will walk you through everything. However, if you’re more of the do it yourself type then you will probably want to roughly follow these steps:

1. Create a very clear, detailed outline. It’s up to you how you want to do this. I use a blank picture of a smartphone screen on MS PowerPoint to show the animated images of what should appear. The images are made with rough drawings and cut and paste pictures. The notes field on the bottom is where I write the text that will appear, and the instructions for each interaction.

2. Find freelancers. When you post for your job you should have a good idea of what language you would like the App coded in. We use Corona SDK mainly because it works well with the 2D images we use, and is easy to build across the two major platforms. However, each language has its pros and cons and should be selected based on your particular requirements. You will need an animator and a developer (coder). This is the most stressful part of the process. Solid coders are at a premium. Be sure to thoroughly check past project ratings and work experience before your Skype interview. If you don’t know what you’re talking about the interviewee will have a huge advantage, so make sure you’ve studied up on the development process before hand. Make sure people sign a nondisclosure agreement. Negotiating payment is too complex for me to get into here, but you really need to talk to someone who has been through it all before if you don’t want to get hoodwinked.

3. Get building. It is important to organize how you will interact with your employees. Outline how you will contact each other, monitor progress, or test their current work. Once these pieces are in place you just get to it.

4. Publish.

A friend suggested uploading your completed Apps to the marketplace yourself, and it was great advice. Anyone can do it, and there are plenty of tutorials. Generating certificates in the Apple store is a good way to introduce yourself to the process. This is a pretty basic thing in the eyes of the people you will have hired, but they are always impressed when a contractor takes the time to learn how to do it.

App Start screenCarrie: How important is collaboration to the process of developing your project?

Not a lot of collaboration goes into the project. Everything is in my head, and it is frustrating to try to explain it to anyone. However, when my students test early versions of the App there is a sort of collaboration where they tell me what works and what doesn’t. Their criticism is an important thing for me to build around.

Carrie: What has been one of your challenges with this project and how have you overcome it?

The single greatest challenge was finding enough time to commit fully to the project. I overcame this obstacle by quitting my job. This has led directly to my second greatest challenge: running out of money. Stay tuned to see how that turns out.

Carrie: What is one thing you know now you wish you knew when you started?

I taught myself how to run sample code on the software development kit in order to test it. I’m also taking some basic coding lessons in Python from the free online course offered by Code Academy so I can better understand what the process entails. Knowing a bit of lingo can get you a lot of credibility with your developers. All of the knowledge I’ve gained over the past two years would have helped me so much, but there is no way to know it all ahead of time. You just keep learning as you go.

Carrie: When the idea began you lived in Dubai and were working with people all over the world. What is it like working remotely with people?

Working remotely presents its challenges, but having the ability to choose from a wide variety of animators and developers more then makes up for this. My contractees are in Poland, the US, Canada and Hong Kong. It’s interesting to see the strange hours that developers keep, and surprising to see how often we are all on Skype at a reasonable time. In the final analysis it is better to work remotely with the best person for the job, then locally with a sub-par employee.

Carrie: If someone had an idea they feel would translate well into an app, how would you suggest they get started?

Most projects will cost you between $2000 – $5000. The App market is at a weird juncture right now where users don’t want to pay for anything. If you think your idea is worth risking a few grand and a few hundred hours in a market that is stubborn to pay for products, then start outlining your idea and reading all of the websites and blogs you can.

Also, if anyone had an idea for high school Chemistry or Physics Apps then I would be happy to partner with them, and bring their idea to market under our brand. This is where I see us branching out to once all of my Biology ideas have run out.

Peter's collaboration platform

Peter’s collaboration platform

Carrie: If people want your apps where can they go?

They should be on the Google Play, and iTunes marketplace in early January.

Carrie: What inspires you?

Knowing that what we’re making is something with utility. My students keep messaging me asking for the release date to be pushed up so they have it in time for their exams. The idea that my Apps can increase understanding is very motivating.

Carrie: How do you define Creativity?

I have two definitions:

The first simply involves taking the time to build something that didn’t exist before. It can be done by cobbling together things that are already around you. I do this by taking chemicals and enzymes onto a new medium. It’s something anyone can do if they take the time and energy. The fact that most people don’t is the reason why this type of creating is viewed admirably.

The second definition demands the ability to transcend the established rules, traditions and relationships of the objects around you. Da Vinci did then when he imagined his helicopter. This is what most people, myself included, are most likely to picture when we hear the word creativity. It’s an almost mythical ability that few people have and everyone envies.

BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: Peter shares some easy steps to help you get started on building your own app! Have you the interest but not the knowledge? Perhaps today is the day to start that outline!

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