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Q&A with the Winning Team from Technovation Challenge

Technovation Challenge is a program where high school girls learn computer programming by inventing and building mobile phone application prototypes. They develop business plans and present these ideas to venture capitalists for the chance to have their application professionally redeveloped and globally distributed. We sat down with Team Arrive and their mentors to find out more about their app and their experiences with Technovation Challenge.
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Team Arrive and their mentors.

Questions for the Mentors

InformIT: Congratulations to you and Team Arrive on winning this year’s Technovation World Pitch! For people who may not be familiar with it, can you explain what the Technovation Challenge and World Pitch is?

Dan Ristea: Technovation Challenge is a 13 week mobile app development program which enables girls to explore various facets of the tech world. This year 114 teams from around the world participated in Technovation Challenge. Their task was to build an application which solved a problem in their local community. After winning the regional competition, the top 10 teams attended Technovation World Pitch in San Francisco, where they pitched their ideas to industry leaders and venture capitalists for a chance to win $10,000 in seed funding.

InformIT: All of the girls attend the Nightingale-Bamford School.  Is there something in this school’s curriculum that helped the girls succeed in this challenge that other schools might be able to emulate?

Dan: Nightingale's curriculum provides students a strong foundation with technology-including courses in computer science, programming, and robotics; however, the Technovation team started as an extracurricular activity. Once we formed a team, each girl was assigned a specific role as well as individual and collective responsibilities.  We then met with the girls individually and in small groups to provide instruction and guidance. A few weeks into the competition we met our mentor, Natalie Hollier. Together we helped the girls navigate through a series of activities on the journey to Technovation World Pitch. The girls identified problems in their community, came up with solutions, created wireframes, programmed their solutions for mobile devices, created a website to track their progress, and participated in tech events such as hack days and field trips to technology companies, which helped them develop team spirit and come up with a product of their own.

InformIT: How did you become involved as mentors to this challenge?

Dan: I first learned about Technovation Challenge in November 2011 at their orientation workshop for teachers and mentors.  I found their vision and commitment to “providing a life changing experience for girls by setting them on the path to experience success in tech” to be a great way of engaging Nightingale girls in computer science. One year later we enrolled and met Natalie, who served as the team’s mentor.

Natalie Hollier: I was looking to volunteer in a mentoring program, and Technovation really stood out to me for a number of reasons. The program is very hands on and interactive so you really get to know the girls and build a relationship with them. You’re matched with a group of girls and so you mentor them both individually and as a team working together. And most importantly to me, it aims to get girls interested in careers in STEM, in particular software, which is the field I work in and would love to see more women in.

InformIT: Why do you think we don’t seem more girls and young women choosing programming and other fields in technology?

Natalie: A lot of girls don’t grow up using technology in the way that boys do, whether it be playing video games or building robots. Therefore, they don’t consider it as something that might interest them. When they go to study, Computer Science belongs under Engineering as a discipline so that field is often overlooked as being something boys are interested in.

Also I think people often don’t know the careers that studying technology can lead to, and so they imagine stereotypical jobs where they are stuck in a room at a computer all day, instead of say giving presentations, training others, doing sales demos, running workshops, marketing on social media and so on. In general I think careers in Technology are undersold and so they are often not on the list of choices being considered. Perhaps if more women knew that careers in technology are well paid, have flexible hours, opportunities for travel and the skills are in great demand, more of them would consider it.

InformIT: What surprised you about the way the team worked together to develop the app?

Natalie: Ultimately, the girls worked together to put together a concept for their business, Arrive. Some of the girls liked coding, others liked working on the business plan, others liked writing blogs, building the robot or making the video. It was great to see how happy they each were to specialize and own an area. The great thing was that they trusted each other to do their own parts, rather than have everyone work on everything at once. This made the girls more interested in the project too, since they were able to focus on doing the things they liked.

Questions for the Girls

InformIT: Can you briefly describe the idea for your app?

Girls: Arrive is a digitized version of the school’s current check-in system. It is inexpensive, fast, and has a safety component built into it. School security is crucial, and it's important for parents and administrators to know where each student is at all times. Arrive is the solution to this because it is live attendance that can be accessed at all times by the administration on their smart devices and computers. Additionally, parents also have the option to receive text messages once their child has gone into the building which further ensures the safety of the students.

InformIT: How did you come up with the idea?

Girls: Alexandra Damley-Strnad was the one who came up with the idea after being slowed down by the large number of students in the lobby who were all crowding around the scanner trying to scan their ID cards at the same time. It was then clear to everyone on the team that the current check-in system was not as effective as it should be and that if we were to digitize it, it would allow for a smoother check-in into the school building.

InformIT: What was the most difficult part of the challenge?

Girls: The most difficult part of the challenge was prioritizing all of our ideas and making sure they were all fully completed before beginning on another one. There were numerous things we wanted to incorporate into our app, but because of the deadline we had to meet, we had to decide which ones we wanted to do first. Although we still had many other ideas we wanted to include we have decided to possibly complete them in the future. The app we submitted and presented to the judges was a good representation of what we were aiming for. It showed that we really do care about our community and that we want to help by providing a system that is beneficial to everyone.

InformIT: What part or parts of the challenge did you enjoy the most?

Girls: We enjoyed every minute of the challenge because it we were constantly learning something new. Our mentor, Natalie, who works at ThoughtWorks whose mission is to “better humanity through software and drive the creation of a socially responsible and economically just ecosystem,” gave us the chance to visit their office multiple times to continue working on our app, speak with other people who work there and pitch our app to them. We really enjoyed visiting ThoughtWorks because it really motivated us to not only continue working diligently on Arrive, but also to consider pursuing a career in computer science. Working with Natalie was amazing in itself because she proved that women are capable of working in fields in which females are underrepresented. She was extremely helpful in everything and was also really supportive of us. This challenge opened the doors to a brand new field of work that we had never been exposed to and Natalie helped make this experience much more enjoyable by showing us various aspects this.

InformIT: How did you work out disagreements among your group about the direction of the app or the presentation?

Girls: There were never any major disagreements about crucial aspects of the project. The few disagreements that arose were usually about smaller decisions that were then discussed and resolved almost immediately. Every Friday morning we met to discuss how things were going with Arrive. People pitched their ideas, including reasons why it would be a good route to take with Arrive. We all listened and collectively came up with an idea that everyone agreed with. Everyone in the team had high expectations for Arrive and we were all more than willing to hear everyone’s thoughts, which made it possible to create an app that we are all extremely proud of.

InformIT: I see you used AppInventor, PHP and MySQL to build your app.  Did you have experience with these technologies before the project, or did you learn them specifically for this challenge?

Girls: Before the Technovation challenge we had taken a semester of computer science, in which we used JavaScript and HTML. Other than that, every other program we used for the challenge was new. We enjoyed learning MIT App Inventor.

Graciela: It was very rewarding in the end when Krystal and I had successfully created a program for the robot to unlock the door.

InformIT: How long have you been working on the app and robot?

Girls: It took numerous months for us to complete the app and the robot. Aside from having the entire team meet Friday mornings to work on it, we also met at different times with our mentor and advisor depending on what our role was. At times we left school as late as 8:00 p.m. and sometimes we even met outside of school on the weekends. All the hours spent on the app and robot paid off in the end because we were able to produce a fully functional app that could in the future be implemented into any school or other institution.

InformIT: How did you become interested in technology in general, and in this project specifically?

Girls: After taking computer science we immediately became interested in technology. We wanted to learn more and do something outside of the classroom setting. When we heard about the Technovation Challenge we instantly wanted to join the team. Not only would it provide the opportunity to explore in depth more aspects of computer science but it was also a part of a non-profit organization that aims to empower women in the underrepresented fields of technology. We couldn’t let this amazing opportunity slip away, which is why we became interested in joining the Technovation Challenge.

InformIT: How did you divide up the work in your team?  Who did what, and who decided who did what?

Girls: Hope Jin was the project manager, which meant that she organized team meetings. Although she was given this authority she was very liberal and allowed the other team members to decide what they wanted to do based on their experience and area of interest. She coded the student version of Arrive and Emma Chesley programmed the administrative version of the app. Alexandra Damley-Strnad was in charge of marketing and making sure that everyone knew about Arrive. She ensured that Arrive was at the fingertips of its clients. Krystal Molina and Graciela Garcia worked on the business plan and also coded the program for the robot, which was an additional feature of Arrive. Despite the fact that we all had our assigned roles in the team we were always helping one another, which made the process much easier. In order to ensure that everyone was well-informed about all the different areas concerning the app, we met every Friday morning to give a brief summary on how things were going in our given roles.

InformIT: If you had it to do again, what would you do differently with regard to developing and pitching the app?

Girls: By the time the World Pitch came we was very proud of the app that we created. However, something we could do differently is finding ways of approaching goals with more than just one mindset. With more approaches, we are able to see more potential outcomes and further understand their consequences. Another thing  would definitely be to work on our pitch some more. We had it all planned out, but our timing was slightly off. It’s hard to give a 4 minute pitch on all of the thousands of things we would like to say. Either way, we are still extremely delighted with the immense progress we made from the beginning of the challenge all the way to the end and wouldn’t do anything much differently than how we did it initially because it was all a learning process that greatly benefited us in the end.

InformIT: What will you remember most about the day of the World Pitch?

Girls: What we will definitely remember most about the day of the World Pitch are the words of Melissa L. Bradley, founding and managing director of New Capitalist. She gave a truly inspiring speech about the vast capabilities women have to make a difference in any field, even the ones in which they are underrepresented. Because of Ms. Bradley, we were even more motivated to want to pursue a career in computer science because she strengthened the notion that women do in fact have the ability to do whatever they set their minds to.

InformIT: What’s next for Team Arrive, both with the app and with your future non-Arrive plans?

Girls: We would like to continue studying computer science, which is why we are extremely excited for the opportunity we were given.

Team Arrive was offered an internship at ThoughtWorks to work with them over the summer to develop Arrive for the app store. It’s an amazing opportunity because we will be forming a team with ThoughtWorks employees, perhaps 2 developers and 1 designer, who would help us complete our app by the end of the summer to put in the App Store. Ideally we would like to have it fully functional with all of the features we have envisioned and also have it work with the iOS platform. Thanks to all of the help that ThoughtWorks and Technovation has offered, we will be able to let the world know that Arrive has arrived.

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