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Cheney students make award-winning app

Cheney Middle School STEM students, front row, left to right, Hunter Koehmstedt, Joram Stith and Haison Nguyen and, back row, Seralyn Blake and Zach Milbrandt created an app named a "Best in Nation" winner by Verizon. Dave Wallis

Cheney Middle School recently had five of its Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) students see their efforts recognized at the national level.

The five seventh-graders — Hunter Koehmstedt, Joram Stith, Haison Nguyen, Seralyn Blake and Zach Milbrandt — are creating an application called “Snap Docs,” the concept of which won one of eight “Best in Nation” awards in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge on Wednesday, Feb. 26.

“I think these students won because they work hard, but also have strong communication skills,” Cheney Assistant Principal Adam Gehlhar said. “They were able to craft their message in a way that was well-received. It is meaningful for me as a school leader to see that our school is producing students who can take things like this on.”

The Snap Docs app allows the user to take a photo of a paper document, and then convert it into an interactive Google document — a program compatible on all devices — using text-recognition software.

“If you don’t have an electronic copy of a document, but need to correct or re-type something in it, you can take a photo of it, and the app will make it into a Google Document,” Koehmstedt said. “Then you can edit it and reprint it or send it to someone else.”

The team began working on the concept of their app in October, keeping in mind Verizon’s four recommended app fields of agriculture, education, healthcare or ecosystem. After pitching a few ideas, they then worked in conjunction with Myriad Devices — a Fargo business that builds apps for businesses — to determine the feasibility of each concept, and eventually decided on Stith’s idea.

“I thought of an app that could read my exceedingly messy handwriting and spell-check it for me,” Stith said. “We promptly realized, thanks to Myriad Devices, that that would be impossible. From there, I thought we could maybe make one that reads printed text, since that is always the same if you set it to read a certain type of text. That idea eventually escalated into Snap Docs.”

While the app falls under the education field, it also has the potential to help the environment as well.

“We did something that kind of could clean up the earth, instead of using so much paper and continually printing and rewriting everything” Blake said. “It could also help keep less clutter in offices and schools.”

Their concept was then presented at the state level in mid-December by utilizing a three-minute video describing the app’s concept, what it does and who its function is intended for, as well as a 1,000 word essay detailing how the students came up with the idea, how they incorporated STEM skills and how they worked as a team.

“We really try to emphasize 21st-century skills in the school district,” Adam Gehlhar said. “This team winning this exemplifies those skills within our students. They are able to take a design challenge this open-ended, and apply what they learn in school and from each other in an authentic context and come up with a solution to a real-world problem in the world. It means a lot to us and to our STEM program.”

After winning at the state level for their concept, the team moved on to the Best in Region competition, where they won a $5,000 grant for their school meant to advance STEM education. Upon winning a Best in Nation award, they received an additional $15,000 for the school.

“It is my intent for the students to help with the planning on how that money will be utilized,” Gehlhar said. “Some will be for professional learning, particularly around coding and how that can be applied within the context of school. Hopefully we can bridge the gap between what our community needs and what our nation demands in terms of people literate in those career fields.”

One option for a portion of the funds is sending them to STEM summer camps, where they learn more about coding for apps and video games.

Verizon will soon send someone from the MIT Center for Mobile Learning to the area to help the students code their app and get it on digital marketplaces.

“I think it is an amazing thing that kids our age can make an app and just put it out on the market, and show everyone that you are not too young to make a difference,” Blake said.

According to the team, their success on a national scale reinforces the fact that the district’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math is paying off for area students.

“This is a national endorsement of STEM education, and proof that it really works,” Stith said. “The knowledge of coding is cool to have, and it could potentially be useful in the future.”

The school’s administration agrees, and hopes to implement more STEM lessons and competitions in classes down the road.

“We are proud of this program, and these students should be proud of themselves and what they are doing,” Gehlhar said. “We are hopeful that more of these opportunities will be available for more students in the future.”