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Student App DevelopersCommunication technology giants Verizon recently announced the winners of their annual Innovative Learning App Challenge, in which middle and high school students across America are challenged to develop mobile app concepts that solve a problem in their local communities. Promoting teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, STEM skills and coding, the app challenge attracted over 1,800 submissions, with awards available at State, Regional and National levels.


The eight teams who win the coveted 'Best In Nation' category are not only awarded a prize of $20,000 for their schools or nonprofit clubs, but they also have the opportunity to build their apps with the help of a visiting expert from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), before taking an all-expenses-paid trip to Orlando, Florida, where they will demo their finished apps in person at the National Technology Student Association (TSA) Conference. Past winners have demonstrated their apps at the White House, appeared in online advertising campaigns and been featured in documentaries.


Tackling issues ranging from self defense and crisis intervention to locally sourced food and sustainability, these are the eight app concepts that were declared Best in Nation this year.


Sharon Middle School, Massachusetts - Empower

Designed by a team of five seventh-grade middle school students from Sharon, Massachusetts, Empower is an app that helps autistic adults to find job placements. The group worked with local employers and volunteer group to better understand the challenges facing autistic job seekers. Empower includes features such as job listings, caregiver information and image-based options for non-verbal job seekers. Employers can also add tags to ensure job seekers are aware of demands and potential triggers such as high noise levels.


North Pole Middle School, Alaska - In-Reach

After deciding to focus their idea around mental health issues, the team of middle school students from North Pole Middle School, Alaska, conducted research into the topic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress that often afflicts soldiers or victims of severe injury or trauma. The In-Reach app connects to a Fitbit or smart watch, logging heartbeat acceleration to help identify PTSD episode triggers.


Capital Day School, Frankfort, Kentucky - Waste Free America

Inspired by an encounter with a homeless man while on a class trip to Chicago, the team of eighth-graders from Capital Day School in Frankfort, Kentucky developed 'Waste Free America', an app that alerts shelters and soup kitchens when a restaurant within a 10-mile radius has leftover food available for pickup. The group also conducted research at a women's shelter to validate their idea, winning praise from local community leaders.


Meeteetse Junior High, Wyoming - Farmersbook

The small town of Meeteetse, Wyoming is classified as a 'food desert', with no grocery stores within a 10 mile radius. Consequently, the town's small population often have difficulty acquiring fresh, healthy food. Students from Meeteetse Junior High came up with 'Farmersbook', a virtual farmer's market in which home gardeners can connect with consumers to sell their locally sourced fruit and vegetable crops.


Taos Academy Charter School, New Mexico - See Something, Say Something

After losing several classmates to teen suicide, the team from Taos Academy Charter School, New Mexico developed See Something, Say Something, an app combining community and social engagement to promote real-time crisis intervention for people who suspect a friend or family member might be in danger, or teens who are undergoing a crisis themselves. Users can share their thoughts and feelings in an online safe space, access information about suicide warning signs or connect directly to a Crisis Text Line.


Greenwich High School, Connecticut - Under My Wing

Developed by Greenwich High School's Girls Who Code Club, Under My Wing creates a mobile solution to help prevent and protect young adults from assault. The app features self-defense tutorials, emergency contact features and integrated recording capabilities to help people to quickly and safely raise the alarm if they feel unsafe and to remove themselves from potentially threatening situations. 


STEM High School, Redmond, Washington - Take Me There

Take Me There helps senior citizens and people with disabilities to plan journeys by providing detailed accessibility information and route information far beyond what typical mapping tools offer. Factors such as mode of transportation, walking distances, costs and presence of accessibility ramps allow the app to recommend the bets route to a destination based on the user's individual needs.


Girls Who Code Intuit, Mountain View, California - Soteria

Named after the Greek goddess of protection, Soteria uses Google Maps and local crime data to helps walkers to avoid high-risk areas when walking alone. An automatic re-router quickly calculates the best routes to circumvent crime hotspots, while a twitter feed from the local police department provides real-time alerts of recent crimes. There's also an emergency call function to help users to raise the alarm if necessary. 


The winning schools will all attend the National TSA Conference in June 2017, where they will demo their finished apps. The students will also retain all intellectual property rights to their apps should they wish to develop them further after the conference.


Which of these innovative youth projects do you find most inspiring? Do you know of any STEM groups who are doing excellent work and deserve some coverage? Let us know in the comments below...

Hidden FiguresIn a market dominated by comic book adaptations and franchise movies, the story of how three relatively little-known mathematicians contributed to the NASA space program may not sound like typical blockbuster fare. However, the 20th Century Fox release Hidden Figures has quietly become one of the biggest cinema hits of the year so far, out-grossing heavily promoted movies such as Passengers and Hacksaw Ridge, while also picking up a slew of awards and three Oscar nominations. The film tells the true story of three african american mathematicians - Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, who calculated flight trajectories for key NASA missions including Project Mercury.


However, the real success story of the movie may be its role in inspiring young people - particularly girls and african americans - to embrace STEM subjects. Numerous schools and STEM clubs have already started hosting special screenings of the film for their students, and are reporting highly positive feedback. Over 2,000 young women had the opportunity to see the film thanks to screenings organised by the initiative Girls Build LA, while up and down America schools and universities are organising class trips for their students, a rare opportunity to show a positive portrayal of STEM careers via a hit mainstream movie.


Jennifer R.Cohen, director of the free Summer Math and Science Honors Academy at UC Berkley (SMASH), another nonprofit that has been hosting screenings of the film, described it as an inspiring story of national pride for many black women.


"They were saying we didn't even know this was a part of history and a part of space exploration" she told the East Bay Times in an interview. "This film... really reprograms what it looks like to be STEM."


20-year old engineering student Maya Thompson from Stanford University also told the Times that watching the film was a cathartic experience.


"It was powerful and emotional... the craziest thing was how this was all new to us. It was powerful to see the shoulders we stand on."


According to Devin Houston, a University mentor at Jackson State University, young women aren't the only demographic responding positively to the film. He recently took more than thirty middle school boys to see the project as part of a University project funded by the Verizon Foundation. "I didn't think it would grab them" he said. "But it did. We talked about what they would take away."


The cast of the movie has also embraced the education community in promoting the film, attending STEM and STEAM panels across the United States. Several cast members have publically lent their support to Image of Stem, an Obama-era White House initiative that seeks to expand STEM education to students from all backgrounds.


Studies have shown that black women account for just 3 per cent of bachelor degrees received in computer science, with women and minorities significantly underrepresented in general across STEM careers and higher education courses.


Dr Glenda Glover, president of Tennessee State University described the movie as 'inspirational', and claimed to have personally paid for several young people to see the movie. "I'm celebrating the movie, but dismayed and disappointed that it took fifty years for the world to know the story", she told the educational website Diverse. "It would have been an inspiration to me."