The scene is familiar, unfolding just about everywhere on campus. A student reaches for his or her phone, leans against a wall and embarks on one of several activities: text messaging, checking e-mail or surfing the Internet. Thanks to several new iPhone applications developed at Franklin & Marshall College, the student might also navigate the challenges of computational geometry.
Four applications from the College are now available for the iPhone and iPod from the iTunes "App Store," the result of an effort spearheaded by Jay Anderson, the Richard S. and Ann B. Barshinger Professor of Computer Science Emeritus. All four "apps" are free and arose from a partnership between F&M and the Free University of Bolzano, Italy.
"The idea is that students can sit in Jazzman's while having a cup of coffee and learn about computational geometry," Anderson says. "Each application was developed to test the hypothesis: If a student has a visual rendition of a difficult math problem on their iPhone, will they learn it better?"
The Fractal Editor, developed by University of Bolzano exchange student Michael Dejori, was the College's first offering on iTunes. It hit the market in January 2009 and has been downloaded more than 4,500 times. The Fractal Editor is based on the Macintosh OS X desktop/laptop version IFS Drawer developed by Rob Burkhead '09.
F&M's most recent additions to the "App Store" are ConvexHull, Triangulation and Voronoi Diagram. Anderson developed Voronoi Diagram, while exchange students Lukas Furler and Christine Niederkofler created ConvexHull and Triangulation, respectively.
"All of our applications have to do with computational geometry," Anderson says. "The Fractal Editor makes pretty pictures, but the other three are more closely tied to an upper-level math course."
Anderson, who retired from teaching last year, fostered the relationship between F&M and the University of Bolzano after spending the 2005-06 academic year on sabbatical in Italy. Exchange students from Bolzano take independent studies with Anderson, applying their skills to create new applications.
Applications for the iPhone represent new tools for educators, something Anderson says F&M is quickly capitalizing upon. He notes that the College is among the first liberal arts institutions to develop iPhone "apps."
Before applications reach the iTunes store, they pass through Apple's tightly controlled approval process. Applications must not affect the other functions on the iPhone or iPod, especially the phone function. Apple has strict guidelines for the "look and feel" of its mobile devices, and Anderson and his students have had to fix things to make sure they conform to the criteria.
The end result, he says, has been worth it.
"We're doing this for students, good, intelligent, hard-working undergrads," Anderson says. "This is a new medium for instruction."