Despite growing up in the Silicon Valley, an area known for harboring some of the world’s largest technology companies, we had never really been exposed to the behind-the-scenes aspect of technology – specifically coding, app design and software development. So joining the Technovation Club at our school during freshman year was simply an act born out of curiosity for the three of us: perhaps borne out of a momentary desire to make new friends, or it was an effort to investigate what exactly was so alluring about the computer science field. Whatever the actual reason was, we – Harini Arumugam, Ria Doshi, and Eesha Ramkumar – sophomores at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino – joined forces to venture into our growing interest for technology through Technovation.
Technovation is the world’s largest entrepreneurship program for girls from ages 10-18. It encourages young women around the world to solve a problem in their community of their own choice by creating an app and launching a startup. (For more information, visit http://www.technovationchallenge.org)
When we decided to participate in this program, we had little to no knowledge of writing computer programs or establishing a company. We also had no clue about what topic we were going to choose for our project. With some help from our club officers, we started off by brainstorming issues that truly impact our world, such as natural disasters and world hunger. However, after further discussion, we decided that these problems were too vast and could not be easily resolved with an application. So we decided to take a closer look at our community: specifically, within our own high school.
A unique characteristic of our school district is that it has one of the largest special education systems in the Bay Area. We personally knew so many people with special needs, some of whom we studied with on a regular basis. And because this affects not only students in our school, but millions of individuals around the world, we decided this was a topic we felt strongly about and something we could base our project on. After further research, we discovered that autism is a common disorder individuals have in our community. We were aware that many students with autism struggled within their classrooms, and they were sometimes negatively perceived because of these very struggles; we decided that we wanted to do something to help these individuals.
Now that we had completed the task of choosing an idea, we needed to get a better grasp of what autism was. We understood, from reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and online articles about autism, that it was a cognitive disorder which caused challenges for people in terms of communication, social interaction, anxiety, and behavior. However, we wanted to take our research a step further by directly communicating with people with autism and their families to get a firsthand perspective of what having autism was like. So we sent out a survey to over 50 autism centers around the U.S. While analyzing responses, we noticed how almost every respondent mentioned that they or their loved ones with autism struggled regularly with communication and anxiety issues. We decided to build our app’s features, Interaction and Relaxation, around these topics.
Having begun our Technovation journey around the month of October 2017, we spent the next four to five months developing our user interface. We decided to use MIT App Inventor, a blocks language for Android devices which was especially suitable for beginners like us, to build our application. We learned the very basics of computer programming – thanks to App Inventor’s easy-to-use platform – and after watching hours of YouTube tutorials, we began to construct our app – Alleviate.
We soon ran into a stumbling block. None of us were convinced that our app was indeed unique. We realized that Alleviate’s content was already available online. Why were users going to download our app when they could do a simple Internet search for the same information?
Passionate in our belief in Alleviate’s potential, we decided to take a risk: we scrapped our entire app and restarted. The project submission date was in April, so we only had a little more than two months to recreate our app. We went back to our research phase, analyzing each and every survey response once more as well as consulting our mentor for guidance.
After a myriad of brainstorming sessions, we wondered – what if users could literally communicate with the app? That’s when we came up with the idea of using speech recognition in our Interaction feature to allow the user to talk to the app. With this discovery, we began to speed through the reconstruction of Alleviate.
We personalized Alleviate’s Interaction feature to whether users were verbal or non-verbal, based on the information we collect from when the user first creates an account. This feature includes a game where the device displays an image and verbally asks a question to the user about that image. Non-verbal users, or users who cannot use their voice, are prompted to click the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ buttons in response to the question. Verbal users can respond to the question by recording their voice using the microphone button. A variety of topics are available, such as emotions, manners, actions and more.
As for Alleviate’s Relaxation feature, it offers a variety of calming music tracks and breathing exercises for the user to listen to. It also includes a customizable breathing simulator: an animation that expands and contracts to allow the user to practice inhaling and exhaling accordingly. (For a video demonstration of Alleviate’s features, visit https://youtu.be/ZYEP7C-qAAU)
Now that we had created our app, we decided to test it out on the special education community at our school. After contacting the special education director, Elinor Yamauchi, we set up a meeting with the students. It was amazing to see the impact that our hard work had on these kids! Both students and volunteers were so enthusiastic about Alleviate. “The kids really enjoyed it. They liked being able to customize the color with the breathing [simulator],” said Yamauchi.
The last few weeks before the due date for the competition were spent cleaning up our app, completing other elements of the project (e.g. business plan) and working on our presentation for our Regional live pitch, which was to take place in May of 2018. The submission process was stressful, as we kept having last-minute bugs pop up when we ran our code, but we were able to pull through and complete the challenge.
All of our hard work and presentation practice paid off, as we were selected as the first place winner in our region! But our work didn’t stop there. Over the summer, we continued to improve Alleviate, coding it in Swift so it would be available not only on Android devices but on iOS devices as well.
When the 2018 Technovation Season Results came out, we were stunned – our team had qualified as a senior division finalist team! With over 2,000 app submissions from over 20,000 girls around the world, we had been selected as one of the 6 top senior teams. It was an honor for us, and a huge milestone in FemStem’s journey.
This experience can only be described as a rollercoaster of events – from knowing nothing about coding in the very beginning to becoming Technovation Global Finalists in the end. We learned so much about not only hands-on skills, such as coding and writing a business plan, but we also learnt important life skills, such as teamwork, perseverance and the importance of passion and belief in our work. We are so grateful to Technovation for giving us the opportunity to discover our potential, and to learn that we really can make a difference.
However, we are still aware that there are millions of young women around the world who are not as lucky as us to receive the same opportunities in the field of technology that we enjoy. Why? This is because gender stereotypes unfortunately still exist today. Women constantly face discrimination when attempting to pursue a STEM career, simply because of their identity as females.
It’s our duty to eliminate the stigma associated with women in STEM and to empower females around the world. Freedom of education is a birthright, regardless of gender. We must ensure equal opportunities are provided for everyone in order for progress to be made in our society, and until then, we must keep fighting.
After all, as Pakistani women rights activist, Malala Yousafzai, once said, “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
A special thanks to Sarah Sullivan, our mentor, who guided us each step of the way, the special education community at our school, as well as all the Technovation club officers at Monta Vista High School for their tremendous support.
For more information about FemStem, visit http://www.teamfemstem.weebly.com.