As kids all over the country are discovering, you can do a lot of cool stuff with the sciences, math, technology and engineering (STEM): design videogames, build robots or just blow stuff up.
But, you can also use technology to help your fellow classmates, as six middle-school girls from near Dallas discovered recently. Two years ago, Jacquelyne Garcia Torres, Caitlin Gonzales, Janessa Leija, Cassandra Baquero, Grecia Cano and Kayleen Gonzalez entered and won the Verizon Innovative App Challenge, which asks kids to propose an idea for a mobile app that solves a problem in their school or community. Now, their app, Hello Navi, designed to help a blind classmate navigate the halls of their school, has been bought by Visus Technology, which is planning on expanded it to college campuses nationwide.
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“It was such a shock,” says Baquero. “We couldn’t believe that we were heard not just by schools and supporters of the visually impaired, but by actual companies that are now interested in what we do.”
The app measures the user’s stride and uses that information, combined with digital building blueprints, to give audio directions to help him or her walk through unfamiliar spaces.
“We were basically inspired by our classmate Andres,” says Torres, 14, who is now in ninth grade. “We were all in middle school together, and I know he had struggled for a long time. So, once the competition came up and we started talking about ideas, we were like, ‘Hmm, this would be great for our fellow companion in school right now.’ He was our idol.”
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And though the girls had no coding experience prior to entering the competition (Verizon connected them with MIT programmers to give them a crash course on app-development), several of them have caught the tech bug. Baquero, who had previously thought about pursuing a career in fine art, now dreams of studying engineering at CalTech, while Torres, who wants to be an architect, plans on creating videogames based on her blueprints. Yet, eighth-grader Grecia Cano was inspired by the experience in a different way: “When I grow up, I want to be a speech pathologist,” she says. “I really like helping people. I love it. That’s what I want to do.”
The Verizon App Challenge is currently accepting entries for its fourth year running. The competition runs through November 24, and winners receive the chance to work with MIT experts to turn their ideas into real smartphone apps, and receive up to $20K in grants for their schools. Go to www.verizon.com/appchallenge for more information.
Follow Raquel on Twitter @RaquelLaneri.