iOS Design Lab Is One-of-a-Kind with Support from Apple Inc.

A one-of-a-kind collaboration with Apple Inc. is providing valuable experience to some Michigan State University students who are designing and developing apps as part of MSU’s iOS Design Lab.  

Using Apple’s challenge-based learning framework as a guide, the iOS Design Lab, which launched in September, offers students a year-long experiential learning opportunity right here on campus where they learn about technology, work with technology, and design and create their own apps using Swift, which is Apple’s programming and coding language. 

“What we are doing is unique,” said Scott Schopieray, Assistant Dean for Academic and Research Technology in MSU’s College of Arts & Letters. “There are only two higher ed. institutions in the United States that are working with Apple in a similar fashion, but we are the only university doing it in this way and that is cohort-based using a challenged-based framework that walks students through the experience.” 

We are the only university doing it in this way and that is cohort-based using a challenged-based framework that walks students through the experience.

Scott Schopieray, Assistant Dean

Challenge-based learning is an educational framework that Apple came up with about 10 years ago where students choose a challenge and work on solving it using technology. It consists of five-stages: 1) challenge selection, 2) challenge refinement, 3) prototyping, 4) prototype creation, 5) reflection. 

“This flips traditional courses on their heads because students are seeking out and leading the projects they want to work on,” said Sarah Gretter, Senior Learning Experience Designer at MSU’s Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology. “They chose what problem they want to solve and are coming up with an app to solve that problem. It truly is led by their passion.”

The 20 students who are part of the first cohort were able to choose their own teams with each team consisting of two to six people. This past semester, the teams focused on selecting a challenge and refining it. 

App Review Event

On December 7, the teams gave presentations to members of the campus community and Apple employees that reviewed the apps they are working on. One app, called “Get Home Safe,” will make students aware of possible dangers on campus. Another app, called “Otter,” will offer information on opportunities to give students the experience they need to gain their first job after they graduate, and a language learning game app also is being developed. 

“Instead of just doing a project for a grade and then forgetting about it, we are working continuously on something and hoping for it to become something bigger in the future,” said Kelly Phalen, a junior Graphic Design major, who is part of the “Get Home Safe” team. “We are getting a lot of awesome teamworking and problem-solving skills, and it has been an incredible experience working with students from other majors who have so much knowledge in things that I am not very familiar with.” 

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Students working on wireframes for an upcoming app.


When the teams return to campus in January 2019, they will work on developing their apps with the hopes of completing them by the end of the semester. 

“I am putting all the tools and all the techniques that I have learned in classes to use in the creation of this project, not to mention all the other things I am learning from other people and their experiences,” said Alexia Kienitz, a senior Professional Writing major specializing in Experience Architecture, who is a member of the “Otter” team. “This is really helping teach me about the professional setting and what it’s really like to design products and work with a team.”

Reimagining Digital Learning

This unique collaboration with Apple is helping to reimagine the future of digital learning at MSU. 

“The iOS Design Lab – the first of its kind in U.S. higher education – is one of our most exciting initiatives,” said Jeff Grabill, Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology. “Michigan State University is immersed in an effort to reimagine ourselves as a learning institution. Part of that effort is to create engaging experiences that anticipate what the world needs from our graduates.” 

Grabill was the one who first reached out to Apple and established the relationship with them. He then turned the project over to Schopieray and Gretter, who created the entire iOS Lab based on their research and the feedback they received from current students. 

We wanted to innovate with a new approach to teaching that is not your typical classroom...we wanted it to be as close of an experience as students would have in the real world.

Sarah Gretter, Senior Learning Experience Designer

“We wanted to have something that was student-centered and student-led,” Gretter said. "We wanted it to be different, and we wanted to innovate with a new approach to teaching that is not your typical classroom where you follow a syllabus. We wanted it to be as close of an experience as students would have in the real world.”

To establish the iOS Design Lab, visits to the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, were made and there were multiple conversations and meetings with Apple stakeholders.

“Apple brings experience and expertise. They bring a very long-standing commitment to education,” Schopieray said. “They really showed an investment in being a thought partner with us on this and have put us in touch with a lot of their employees who do professional development workshops, who work with teachers on the ground, or who are doing this type of work in different ways. 

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Students collaborating at the iOS Design Lab.


“Apple is committed to helping create this space, which uncovers and discovers student potential in a way that traditional higher education doesn’t necessarily do and that better meets the needs of 21st century learners.” 

Apple also has sent guest speakers to talk to the students.

“This is the kind of exclusive experience the students in this cohort are getting – talking to people who are in the field, working in the industry, and receiving a sneak peek of what it is like to work for Apple, or with Apple, and what their experiences are,” Gretter said.

The First Cohort

Students who were interested in being part of this first cohort had to apply and state what their passion was and how they thought the lab could help create something that is a manifestation of that passion. 

The students who were selected come from a variety of majors – from Medicine to Biochemistry, and Experience Architecture to Entrepreneurship – and have a variety of coding abilities – from no coding experience to some experience with coding. 

They are helping shape what the experience looks like and helping refine what we want to do in the future...They are paving the way for the future of this lab on campus.

Sarah Gretter, Senior Learning Experience Designer

“The pool of students we have is exceptional. They are extremely motivated, talented people who want to solve real challenges,” Gretter said. “This is preparing them for the 21st century realities of working and solving problems in interdisciplinary teams. In real life, you need a variety of different skills on a team.”

This first cohort of students is not only designing and creating their own products, they also are helping shape the future of the iOS Lab.

“They are helping shape what the experience looks like and helping refine what we want to do in the future,” Gretter said. “This cohort knew coming in. They are paving the way for the future of this lab on campus.”