South Fayette students' work on display in nation's capital

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For two years, the software development team at South Fayette High School has been working to create a flashcard application for teachers to use to help students.

The team’s ongoing  work paid off this month: The nine-member group was named the winner of the First Annual Congressional STEM App Challenge for the 18th congressional district of Pennsylvania, which includes southwestern Allegheny County and parts of Washington and Westmoreland counties . All schools in the 18th district were invited.

A video explaining the team’s app will be on display for the next year in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

Students Radhir Kothuri, Ben Kenawell and Sarah Hertzler entered the competition on behalf of the team.

Hosted by the U.S. House of Representatives, the competition was designed to engage students’ creativity and encourage participation in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields.

According to the U.S. House description, the contest “is a nationwide event that allows high school students from across the country to compete by creating and exhibiting their software application for mobile, tablet or other computing devices on a platform of their choice.”

In a letter, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said: “ Your product was very impressive and demonstrated ingenuity worthy of recognition. In fact a panel of highly regarded industry professionals, including representatives from Google, the Pittsburgh Technology Council, and Robert Morris University found your software application, Empowered Learning, stood out as the most entertaining, well designed, and well executed app entered into the competition.”

South Fayette superintendent Bille Rondinelli said “we are so proud of the combined efforts and outcome — not for the national acknowledgement — while that is appreciated, but especially for what the students’ work and legacy means to advancing the high school app lab program and for future student and regional opportunities.”

“It was pretty exciting,” said Ben, who graduated from South Fayette High School in May.

“It’s gone beyond what we ever thought it would,” said Aileen Owens, director of technology for the district, who has worked with the team since the inception of the app.

“I remember when we entered into the contest, but I pushed it to the back of my mind,” said Sarah, who will be a senior. The team’s graphic designer, she said she was surprised when she was included in a group email saying the team had won.

The app, called Flashcards, has been in development since 2012 and was started by Radhir, Ben and Varun Thankgavelu, a 2013 South Fayette graduate. In addition to Sarah, the other members of the team were Sam Cohen, Jason Cillo, Mark Babatunde, Nick Wilke and Breanna McCann.

The project started as an extension of South Fayette’s “App Lab” after-school program, where students learned how to make apps for mobile devices using Java and processing program languages. Wanting a more in-depth experience, some of the students approached Ms. Owens about a new project.

She contacted Ananda Gunawardena, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who agreed to lead the students through the project. He led them through the making of the Flashcard App – a pen-based program for students and teachers, which means that students could write on an external tablet to answer a flashcard question.

Flashcards has been beta tested at the district’s kindergarten through second-grade primary school and has received a positive response from both students and teachers. Now, the app is on its third iteration and continues to evolve.

The all-student team wrote the code and designed the app from the beginning.

During the past school year, Radhir, Ben and Sarah were selected along with Mrs. Owens to present the app at the National Digital Media Learning Conference in Boston. 

A lot of work went into designing and implementing the app.

Mrs. Owens said students worked on the app about 30 hours per week in the summer months of 2012 and 2013. “During the school year, they had to balance school work and extracurricular activities. Students worked when they were able to; fitting work in when possible and averaging about 10 hours per week during peak periods,” she said. 

“Seeing the kids use it is awesome,” Ben said. 

Deana Carpenter, freelance writer:

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