03.13.2017Community

Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge: Inspiring the next generation.

By: Suzanne Guillette
Best in state winners help solve the problems of tomorrow.

What if, for every problem that exists in the world, there was a technology-based solution?

That was the guiding premise for hundreds of middle and high school students across the country to roll up their sleeves and get to work on entries to the fifth-annual Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge. Students, working in teams, first identified a pressing issue in their community and then came up with a creative app concept to solve for it.

In January, 96 of those middle school and high school teams received the “Best in State” honor for their outstanding submissions to the Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge.

The best-in-state award-winners tackled a range of issues, including health, hunger, civic engagement, and education. These winning app concepts are a fascinating window into what matters to students today.

Winning teams receive $5,000 each for their school (or sponsoring nonprofit organization’s) STEM program.

Education for the win

The top category this year—perhaps not surprisingly—is education; nearly 22 percent of all winning app concepts submitted focused on some aspect of learning.

Several concepts facilitated travel-related educational experiences. High school students in Arizona devised XChange, an app that would make student exchanges possible by connecting interested students with host families abroad. A New Jersey-based middle school team proposed Destination Exploration, a virtual travel app that would allow students who aren’t able to hop on a plane due to illness or expense to immerse themselves in other cultures.

After one of the more memorable presidential election seasons in recent U.S. history, three high school teams in Colorado, Minnesota, and Wisconsin came up with  ideas for apps that would educate voters about candidates, their stances on various issues, and other policy matters.

Safety in numbers

The second most popular category is safety, with more than 15 percent of the entries focused on personal security.

Three teams from Delaware, Rhode Island, and Idaho designed concepts that would help crime victims discretely call the police and signal that they need help without alerting their attacker. Two teams in Illinois and California created crime prevention ideas for apps that would alert users when they have entered a high-crime area.

A high school team in Connecticut devised Under My Wing, an app geared toward sexual assault prevention, with direct links to the local police department. The app also would provide quick reference guides to self-defense skills.

Gearing up to give back

Ten percent of the teams developed app concepts to make charitable activities, such as volunteering and donating needed goods, as easy as pressing a button. A high school team in Pennsylvania designed Caring Closet, an app that would allow low-income students to request and receive specific donated clothing items anonymously.

Teams from Kentucky, Hawaii, and Florida pondered the issue of hunger and came up with simple, yet effective ideas for solutions to connect the homeless and those in need to food donations and food pantries.

Healthier options

Mental health also made a strong showing, with 10 percent of teams creating smart app concepts to support psychological well being.

A group of high school students in New Mexico, a state which has the fifth-highest rate of suicide in the nation, created See Something, Say Something, a suicide prevention app that would connect users with crisis counseling and facilitates real-world social connections.

The Best in State middle school team from New Mexico also zeroed in on mental health—they created SchoolBoard, an app which would link socially anxious students with other students and teachers so that they feel like a more integral part of the school community and less prone to be bullied by other students.

In contrast, a Florida middle school team set their sights globally, crafting Cross-Border Telemedicine, a concept for an app that would boost health care delivery in medically underserved regions around the world, such as Syria, Somalia, and Iraq by connecting medical professionals abroad with experienced physicians within the U.S.

Winners also addressed specifically challenged populations. Seven of the teams created app ideas to make life easier for people with disabilities. A high school team in Kentucky came up with Hear Me, a messaging app that would use pictures to make communication easier for non-verbal students with Autism, Down syndrome, or other disabilities.

Thinking globally, app’ing locally

Five of the teams were job-focused, creating concepts to make finding employment and mentoring opportunities easier.

Explore With Her, an app idea from an all-girl team of middle school students from Texas, would tap women in the local STEM field and pair them with girls who are interested in learning more about careers in STEM.

Overall, teams focused on addressing problems that were close to their own communities, such as a high school group from rural Nebraska that came up with Farmhand. The app would help agricultural businesses thrive by making it easy for farmers to keep track of weather conditions, sell livestock and monitor stock prices.

Capital Day School students and advisor celebrate after receiving the surprise announcement that their app, Waste Free America, was one of 8 Best in Nation category winners.

So what’s next?

The Best-in-Nation winners were announced on February 15. These top-tier teams  received $15,000 and an opportunity to work with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) app development experts to learn how to code and make their innovative ideas a reality by bringing the completed apps to market.

More than 33,000 students have participated in the challenge to date. As this year’s emerging trends and categories show, these students—and their inspirational ideas—open up new, tech-based avenues to do social good.

With over 4 million open tech jobs in the US alone, we need more kids to see the world of possibilities waiting for them. That’s why Verizon has committed $160 million in free technology, free access, and immersive, hands-on learning to kids in need.

To learn more about the impressive entries to the Verizon Innovative Leaning app challenge, visit verizon.com/appchallenge.

About the author(s): 

Suzanne Guillette’s work has appeared in Tin House, O Magazine, Quartz and the Rumpus. She lives in New York City.