Developing software systems is becoming standard fare in college computer science classes, but Ursinus College students have taken their classwork a step further: These undergraduates are working as a development, programming and entrepreneurial team to produce two new mobile phone apps.
It was during a fall class “Object Oriented Design and Systems Development,” taught by Associate Professor of Computer Science April Kontostathis, that Ursinus Professor of Psychology Cathy Chambliss and Assistant Professor of Music Garrett Hope appealed to their colleague for help to develop long-simmering ideas.
Students and instructor were up for meeting the challenge. “The schedule was intense, but the students learned leadership and teamwork,” Dr. Kontostathis said. The students learned to “understand licensing, assess what is out there, discuss funding, what to charge.” Everyone pitched in. The math department and a student club bought Mac minis to use as development computers, as well as devices for testing the apps. “They learned the whole process, starting from requirements, development through design and coding, and worked with users to incorporate feedback into a tangible product,” said Dr. Kontostathis. Some of the students from the fall software class continued their work through the spring semester, and currently, as Summer Fellows, some are adding enhancements to the products.
“There is a lot of testing until it is right,” said junior Matthew Rink of Phoenixville. “We don’t stop making improvements.”
Beyond the experiential education, the students are happy that their work on the apps could be helpful to the public. “This will help people,” said Andrew Santiago, a sophomore from Reading, as he described his work on the TherAPPist.
Nathan Labourdette, a senior from Marcellus, N.Y., added that he has witnessed situations where people are distressed, and has seen smartphones become a positive distraction. “So I think something designed specifically for that will be a very good tool,” he said.
TherAPPist joins a growing number of mental health apps but has unique features that customize the user experience, said Dr. Chambliss, who has a longstanding private practice as well. During an escalating meltdown, “conventional theory says walk away but that is not easy for everyone,” she explained. “Some clients fail time after time. But all it might take in some cases is pulling out a phone. It is a socially appropriate action and it buys time.”
“For 35 years I have been trying to find a way to break into that cycle,” she said. “Something minor creates a reactive impulse. In conventional therapy we do everything we can to teach people to re-route themselves. Trying to get people to redirect can be frustrating. Maybe, those who are prone to reactivity could pull out the phone and it could help them to relax and connect with their support system.”
TherAPPist has customizable soothing scenes that could “reassure and reinvigorate,” Dr. Chambliss said. “When I approached April (Kontostathis), I was envisioning a cell phone tool that could help severe and persistently mentally ill patients who make bad choices. TherAPPist is designed to be a one-stop app for anyone who struggles with emotional extremes. It’s like having a therapeutic coach in your pocket, offering tools for enhancing self-control and emotional regulation.”
Options include a relaxation routine, soothing scenes, photos of persons in the support system and emergency numbers. The Summer Fellows were adding a customization subsystem, as well as a journaling feature, and a mood/habit tracking feature. These additional features will allow patients to recall events for discussion during traditional therapy, as well reinforce the idea that positive habits, such as taking medication or maintaining a good sleep schedule, can have a significant impact on mood.
The Post-Tonal Tool Kit stems from Dr. Hope’s work with a student on an independent study project on post-tonal music, which often uses the full chromatic scale and has a strong relationship to math. “Post-tonal music evolved from the highly chromatic music of the late nineteenth century, eventually discarding the notion of key and pitch hierarchy entirely,” said Hope, citing Bartok, Stravinksy and Schoenberg as composers who developed different styles.
The Post-Tonal Toolkit (PTTK) can calculate pitch-class sets and twelve-tone matrices, which allows users to explore relationships between different groups of pitches. The PTTK also provides subsets and supersets, and will soon allow for the exportation of trichords, tetrachords, and larger sets to the pitch-class calculator for further analysis. Dr. Hope called the PTTK a “Swiss Army Knife” of post-tonal music analysis.
“It’s a pedagogical tool,” he said. “When students take a post-tonal theory class, the instructor can incorporate it. It doesn’t replace learning long-hand, but it speeds up progress. We can go further, such as how to teach with it.” Plans call for adding the ability to save and recall previous computations, and the addition of more tools for composing and analysis. There are web-based post-tonal aids, he said, but this is the only app he knows of.
Working with professors in departments other than math and computer science has been among the benefits of working on the apps, said Rink. “We don’t always get to do that.” Rink said that he always harbored a desire to create something with software but “needed the motivation.”
While Dr. Kontostathis’ primary research interest is in the theory and practice of information retrieval and textual data mining, she also has an investment in undergraduate research, and has co-authored many articles with her students. Before returning to academia in 1999, Dr. Kontostathis worked in private industry where she specialized in project management and database design and administration.
“The fact that we get to work on this is really a big deal,” said Labourdette. “We work as a team.”
The apps are available for iPhone® and Android®. Since the spring, just by word of mouth, TherAPPist has had 90 downloads. Promoted and discussed on music composition listerves, the Post-Tonal app has 556 users, with more adding every week.
“There are a lot of great ideas out there,” said Dr. Kontostathis, “but not everyone has the technical know-how to put them to work.” She is eager to help her students continue to work in the field. “Mentoring students is what we do for a living,” she said. “Computer science students need the experience developing software. They are getting that here.”