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Student brews up successful app for Special Education coffee carts

Published May 15, 2023

When John Hersey High School teacher Megan Brownley pitched the idea of an app to help student staffers at the school’s coffee cart, Rachel Rafik stepped up to the challenge.

Each year, in a twist on the “Shark Tank” format, teachers like Brownley pitch their suggestions for useful apps to students in Hersey’s AP Computer Science Principles class. Students pick projects and then work on the apps for their class and AP evaluations.

In late 2021, Brownley told the class that she’d love an app that could help Brewed Awakenings coffee cart staffers count money faster and more easily. And Rachel raised her hand.

Knowing that Brewed Awakenings is staffed by Special Education students in the Career Life Skills program, Rachel said, “This had a lot more meaning to me personally. I’ve been around people with special needs my entire life, and one of my best friends is a special needs student. It was exciting to have a chance to work on this kind of project."

Rachel worked on the app as a solo project during the second semester of the 2021-22 school year. She said she tested seven prototypes before she finally found the right version—and at the end, pulled two all-nighters to perfect the app. The AP Computer Science students submit their apps, with screenshots of their coding work, to the College Board as part of their class evaluation.

But for Rachel, the app wasn’t just an academic exercise. She installed the app on the tablets used by the Brewed Awakenings team members at Hersey. The app translates everything into photos: different cup photos for hot coffee, iced coffee and iced tea orders, and photos of paper currency and coins. “It’s hard for some of these students to identify how much money to ask for from a customer, and how much change to give back. When the student taps the cup photo for the order, the app calculates the order total for them. Then at checkout, when they need to make change, there are photos of every single individual bill or coin that they need to give back to the customer,” she explained.

The app has been a success at Hersey. “Every time I pass by Brewed Awakenings and see the students using the app, I’m so proud of myself. I think, ‘I did that!’ It’s really satisfying,” she said. At the request of Brownley’s team, she also is working on a 2.0 version of the app that logs all orders for a weekly order summary.

After the success of the app at the Hersey coffee cart, Brownley mentioned the project to teachers at other schools. When Prospect’s Kathleen Rafferty asked if the app could be modified and used at her school’s coffee cart, Prospect Perks, Rachel got to work. She changed the color of the visuals from Hersey orange and brown to Prospect blue, and modified product prices and photos.

Rachel traveled over to Prospect at the end of March to meet the Prospect Perks team and install the app on their tablets.

For Rachel, a junior who says she’s interested in pursuing a career in computer programming, designing an app for real-life use has been an invaluable experience. “Here at Hersey, we have five or six student-designed apps that are used on a daily or weekly or some sort of regular basis,” said Rachel’s computer science teacher, Bob Brown. “I’m really proud of Rachel and the other kids who have been able to work on these real-world examples of what we do in the classroom.”