Alabama High School Students Earn “Best in Nation” in Verizon Innovative App Challenge

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is a core focus of the curriculum at Jefferson County International Baccalaureate Shades Valley High School (SVHS) in Irondale, Ala. So when faculty sponsor Steven McDaniel, Ed. S., introduced the Verizon Innovative App Challenge competition last year as an opportunity for students to participate in rich, project-based learning that fosters teamwork and encourages students to explore new ideas and future careers in STEM, it was a natural fit.

This was then underscored as the high school was named “Best in Region” and subsequently “Best in Nation” for Vocal, their mobile app concept submission in the 2014-2015 Verizon Innovative App Challenge, which encouraged middle and high school students to apply their STEM knowledge to develop a mobile app concept that addressed a need or a problem in their schools or communities.

Led by Mr. McDaniel, the six-member SVHS student team made up of three seniors and three juniors – Chris Arora, Kevin Jackson, Ryan Cook, Cole Crownhart, Jerry Hu and Courtney Barkley – worked to develop the Vocal app concept to allow users to manage their time by tracking hours and displaying how they are helping their local communities. It consists of a three-calendar system made up of volunteer events by area, organizations that users support and events that friends are attending.  

“The thing about volunteering is that it gives you experiences that you can’t find in your regular school curriculum,” said Cole Crownhart. “Our problem was not being able to find the volunteering things that we wanted to do.”

Along with the “Best in Nation” accolade came the opportunity to bring the app to life. Currently, the students are developing Vocal with help from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab trainer and the MIT App Inventor Program.

“The great thing about the Verizon project is that our students had a great sponsor who provided support when needed,” said April Miller, Ph.D., International Baccalaureate (IB) coordinator at SVHS. “The Verizon project has been a great experience! Not only does this provide an opportunity for students’ creativity, ingenuity and initiative to shine, they also create products that will benefit the wider community. Jerry, Cole, Chris, Kevin, Ryan and Courtney are a terrific group of juniors and seniors who recognized a need in their world and created an app to meet that need.”

The team of students won a total of $20,000 in grants to help support STEM education programs at SVHS. The students and advisor also each received a complimentary Samsung Galaxy Tab. This summer, the team will present its finished app at the 2015 National Technology Student Association Conference in Dallas.