Designing a New Future, One App at a Time

Problem: Young people find downtown Grand Rapids boring and expensive. Solution: a smart-phone app that turns its stores and cultural attractions into a game featuring an evil mayor and zombies.

Crazy idea or community asset? That’s what some Grand Rapids Public Schools students are trying to figure out in an innovative class that seeks design solutions to community issues. Viviana Farfan, for one, thinks the app just might work. In any case, she says, it sure has been a ball designing it.

“You get to come up with new things, and you get to do it for the community,” said Viviana, a sophomore at University Prep Academy.

That aptly sums up the Teen Arts + Tech Program, an initiative of the West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology. In collaboration with GRPS, the WMCAT program has divided 140 high school students into 12 design teams and paired them with community partners. From city parks and a nature center to homeless and housing agencies, students have worked with eight organizations to make a difference while earning school credit.

In the case of the App Design Team, some students also earn dual-enrollment credit from Kendall College of Art and Design while partnering with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. A software firm executive leads the class in its quest to lure young people downtown through digital gaming.

“I hope they will become better divergent thinkers and lateral thinkers, and they will be equipped to imagine new futures,” Samuel Bowles, vice president of Mutually Human, said of his students. “Those are the kinds of things design can help with.”

Program Gains National NoticeChris Harris of University Prep applies broad brushstrokes to the mural

The multifaceted program stems from a concerted outreach by WMCAT, a nonprofit that offers after-school and summer arts programs with a strong technology component. Teen Arts + Tech weaves together creative design and civic engagement under the guidance of professional artists to help students toward graduation and beyond.

The program has garnered national attention: It recently was named a finalist for the 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. It was one of 50 finalists chosen from 360 nominations; winners will be invited to the White House.

This year the program expanded to add a second weekly class for the entire school year and assigned teams to tackle a community issue with partner agencies. Teams such as Graphic Design, Photography and Video Production have worked with agencies including Dwelling Place, the Humane Society and Blandford Nature Center.

For instance, the Fashion Design team created a backpack and plush toy for children in the Family Promise transitional housing program. The Video Production team made a YouTube tutorial so volunteers elsewhere can create the backpack toys.

This project-based approach has strengthened the curriculum while more actively serving the community, WMCAT leaders say.

“This is quite a change to really increase the impact for our students,” said Executive Director Kim Dabbs. “To have the teens have a voice and engaged in the community and for urban youth to feel empowered and hopeful.”

Mural Captures Soul of the City

Three students felt that empowerment as they worked on a mural to be mounted in the lobby of Herkimer Apartments, a complex run by Dwelling Place for homeless or special-needs renters.

The mural, designed by the Illustration and Painting class, is a colorful conglomeration of street life: people on bikes, running and walking dogs under bright rays of sunlight. Students interviewed apartment residents about what they thought should be in the mural.

“We wanted to add in things that represented Grand Rapids,” said Gen-Dairec Buchanan, a junior at Innovation Central. “People should know there are people that actually care about our city, that would make it more beautiful, make it shine brighter.”

“For me, it’s like the whole community coming together as one big family,” added Miguel Angel Fernandez, a freshman at Union High School.

Under the direction of illustration instructor George Eberhardt, students designed the mural based on the playful art work of Keith Haring. It was to be displayed in a public exhibit May 21, along with the projects of the other design teams, and will be installed in late May or early June.

“It’s saying, ‘Look at what the people of Grand Rapids can do,'” Gen-Dairec said proudly.

Back at the Downtown game…

Back at the App Design Team, Murtaza Mohammadali, a freshman at Innovation Central, worked on a narration script for an audio track to guide game-players through their downtown destinations.

“There’s a small store near the center of the city,” Murtaza wrote. “It’s called Vault of Midnight, a comic book store. Inside are all kinds of books and stories. One book shows a blueprint. Now you must turn back and find another building, a building for college students … “

Other students worked on their portions of the narration. Each was assigned a downtown building or site, which contained an object to help make a chemical weapon. The weapon would brainwash citizens into voting for the mayor to become governor. But the weapon misfires and turns the citizens into zombies, requiring the creation of an antidote.

The class could fill you in on the rest. It’s a convoluted story line they devised to help Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. attract more young people downtown. Some students wanted a game about spies, others about zombies, so they divided into two teams and came up with a game about both.

Designing the app to implement the game was a complex task, involving story boards, understanding how social media work and the logistics of moving game-players through the route. But in learning about the different destinations and presenting their idea to the Downtown Development Authority, the students fulfilled one purpose of their project: engaging with the city.

Teen + Tech Arts students last year painted this mural in the WMCAT hallway Murtaza said it’s been a good experience of “how it is in the real world. It’s fun and kind of confusing sometimes – the decisions you’ve got to make.”

Bowles, the instructor, said WMCAT is hoping to find funds to develop the game as an actual app. Murtaza and his classmates would love to see that happen.

“Many kids don’t come downtown because of its lack of fun,” said Viviana Farfan. “This allows them to be more interactive with the city.”

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WMCAT Teen Arts + Technology

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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