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...