Congressional App Challenge Winners

BHS sophomore Fiona Chow and junior Emma Hakanson work on their app.

Do you like bird watching? If so, there’s a new award-winning app for that and it was created by two Burnsville High School students.

The app is called Birdsong and was created by sophomore Fiona Chow and junior Emma Hakanson as part of their mobile computer science principles class. It features photos, sounds, and information about eight local birds. With the encouragement of their programming teacher Cindy Drahos, they entered it into the Congressional App Challenge and won first place in the 2nd Congressional District.

‘’I challenged my class to work with one other classmate to design an app,” Drahos said. “From the entire class I selected one app that met the winning criteria and rubric set forth in the class.”

They presented their creation to the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board during its meeting Thursday, Feb. 25, demonstrating its features and how they programmed it. They also discussed the contest and what they learned from the project.

Students in the computer science principles class only had 12 weeks to come up with the concept and program it using the MIT App Inventor program. According to Chow, that particular software program uses a more visual form of Javascript, which allows users to put commands together like puzzle pieces.

A unique feature of Birdsong is that it allows the user to utilize their device’s camera to take an image and upload it to the app.

“Let’s say you take an image of a bird that’s about to fly away. You can take an image of that, view it on the app and then you can compare the image that you took to any of the images on the app to try to identify what bird that is,” Chow said at the board meeting.

“You don’t have to switch between the gallery where you have your photos and the bird app,” Hakanson added.

The girls had to pay special attention to more than just coding and programming when they were developing Birdsong. To avoid copyright infringement, Hakanson took the photos herself and they reached out to the individual who recorded the bird sounds, Pamela C. Rasmussen, who gave them permission to use the sounds provided they gave her credit. Being aware of rules and regulations is one thing that Drahos stresses to her classes.

“It is very important in class to be very respectful of copyright rules and regulations. We talk about this in class and provide examples for students to use the Creative Commons site or to be creative and design their own,” she said.

To meet the class criteria, students were required to create an application that inspired or solved a problem. To enter into the contest they also needed to make a video explaining the app and how it was unique or different. Previous programming experience was not taken into account by the judges when choosing the winners. Drahos estimated that of the approximately 1,700 students who signed up for the nationwide contest, around 116 winners were chosen.

As first-place winners, Chow and Hakanson were invited to attend the Hour of Code event March 1 in Washington D.C., though they were unable to attend. They will however be meeting with U.S. Rep. John Kline, who represents Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, later this month to talk about their project and get feedback.

In addition to teaching several computer and business classes, Drahos also advises the after-school tech club, gaming club and stock market club, and serves as a mentor for girls who are interested in programming and coding. She is involved in the Sustaining Passion, Ambition and Resolve for Career Success program, and last summer she was part of the summer week-long program for girls at Macalester College in St. Paul.

“It was a great experience watching the girls engage in technology and coding. I hope to have several girls from the school attend this summer’s event,” she said.

Drahos is seeing a gradual rise in the number of female students that are interested in computer and information technology and she anticipates that once the career pathways model is implemented at the secondary level in District 191, and more technology is integrated into the elementary schools, there will be a rise in the number of girls interested in the STEM fields.

Chow and Hakanson are both interested in the field and agreed that the tools they learned through the class, and through the process of planning and building their app, will have lasting benefits and help them in their careers one day. Additionally, they said that creating an app was an eye-opening experience.

“When you’re looking at an app on your smartphone it seems really simple, but it’s really surprising how many little steps are behind it, how much work is put behind something so simple,” Chow said.

“It can be really hard to find the little bug that’s making it not work,” Hakanson added.

Next year, Drahos plans to allow all students that meet the rubric criteria, and that take extra time outside of class to put the video together, to enter the Congressional App Challenge.