A Winning App

North Dakota middle schoolers create an app to encourage more recycling in their community

Sep 06, 2013 | By Kelli Plasket
COURTESY GRETCHEN PETERSON

A team of 12-year-olds from a North Dakota middle school poses with their new app, Recycling Bin (from left): Jacob Pfeifer, teacher Gretchen Peterson, Troy Mullenberg, Jaden Hilkemann, Zachary Milbrandt, Joram Stith, Lucas Krause, Nicole Niteka, Hunter Koehmstedt, and Seralyn Blake.

A team of middle schoolers from North Dakota has turned an award-winning idea into reality with the recent debut of their Recycling Bin app. The app encourages recycling by providing users with a searchable map of local recycling centers and allows them to save locations as favorites. It also allows users to set a reminder to recycle on their device.

The group of nine sixth graders from STEM Center Middle School, in West Fargo, North Dakota, came up with the idea as part of a school project for the Verizon Innovative App Challenge, which awarded ten teams with Samsung tablets, a school grant, and professional app training. The contest was designed by the Verizon Foundation to promote interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. It challenges students to submit an app concept or design that could solve a problem in their school or community. The students came up with the idea for Recycling Bin when they saw a need for more recycling in their community. "We thought that this would really help a lot of people," Jaden Hilkemann, 12, told TFK.

They kept their concept simple so that anyone could use it. The middle schoolers were surprised when their idea earned them a spot among the ten national winning teams. "My reaction to winning was, ‘Wow, I didn't think our app was this good!'" Joram Stith, 12, said. "We were the youngest [winning] group."

A screenshot from the Recycling Bin app
COURTESY GRETCHEN PETERSON
A screenshot from the Recycling Bin app

From Idea to App Store

For winning the challenge, the students received training from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, which oversees an app-building software program called App Inventor. Together, they turned their idea for Recycling Bin into an app ready for download. "We had groups of two or three people each developing one part of the app," Hunter Koehmstedt, 12, told TFK. "We all collaborated. It was great." Jacob Pfeifer, 12, added that they learned a lot working together. "At first, we all didn't agree on what we wanted it exactly to do, but in the end we all came to a consensus," he said.

In June, the free Recycling Bin app launched in the Google Play app store for Android devices. "I was screaming when it went up on the app store," Seralyn Blake, 12, said. "A lot of my family members downloaded the app. It was pretty cool."

A New Challenge

Do you have a winning app idea? Registration for the second annual Verizon Innovative App Challenge is open through December 3 at verizonfoundation.org/appchallenge. You'll need a group of fellow students and the support of a teacher to enter.

Justina Nixon-Sanitil, Verizon's director of education, helps oversee the challenge. "We feel that technology can engage students and make them more interested in science and math," she told TFK.

Nixon-Sanitil says the judges consider each app concept for its originality and how realistic it is to develop. They also look at how the app idea is presented and how the concept uses STEM ideas. "I would ask any student, even if you feel you are not strong in math or science, to be a part of this," she said. "Come up with an idea. Think creatively. Really think about the problems right around you"

The Recycling Bin team offered their own advice for students entering the challenge. "Have fun, because even if you can't code the app, it's still really fun to come up with ideas," Joram said. "You work better and the work seems easier if you are having fun."