The "Verizon team" assembles outside Henry M. Gunn Senior High School. From left to right: Teacher Jena Lee (standing), Lauren Tan, Sarah Tan, Jady Tian, Ariel Pan, Sophie Krylova. (Courtesy Grace Tan)

The "Verizon team" assembles outside Henry M. Gunn Senior High School. From left to right: Teacher Jena Lee (standing), Lauren Tan, Sarah Tan, Jady Tian, Ariel Pan, Sophie Krylova. (Courtesy Grace Tan)

Peninsula students create voice-recognition app to help disabled

Some high school students from Palo Alto could be getting a head start in the world of software development and entrepreneurship, thanks to a contest sponsored by Verizon.

As part of the Verizon Innovative App Challenge, the telecommunications company challenges middle and high school students to work in teams and create proposals for new apps. Winning teams receive help from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where their concepts are turned into actual mobile apps.

The five-girl team from Palo Alto’s Henry M. Gunn High School drew inspiration for their app idea from a challenge faced by one of their classmates, who has cerebral palsy, which makes it impossible for conventional speech recognition tools, like Apple’s Siri, to understand her.

The girls’ proposed app, “Say It,” would enable users with disabilities or speech impediments to train the software to recognize exactly what they sound like when pronouncing a given word or phrase.

And the “Say It” app could also help some users without disabilities, according to team leader Sophie Krylova, 17, who noted her mother sometimes has trouble getting her phone to understand her Russian accent.

Members of the public have been able to vote for their favorite ideas in the app challenge. So far, the Gunn team has done well. They were voted Best in State, and then took Best in Region honors, placing them in the top 24 out of 1,000 middle and high school teams competing nationwide.

The Gunn girls will find out Feb. 2 if they’re among the eight teams that will be selected as winners. If that happens, $15,000 will be added to the $5,000 they’ve already won for their school, and experts from MIT Media Lab will work closely with the students to turn their concept into a reality.

Like true entrepreneurs, the girls have a backup plan in case they don’t make it to the winner’s circle. Krylova said they might try to get Apple interested in developing their app, noting team member Jady Tian works with blind people, and is impressed with the accessibility aids already built into Apple’s iOS operating system.

Gunn biology teacher Jena Lee said the girls approached her about being their team’s adviser just weeks before the project’s due date, and she was instantly sold on the idea.

“From the brief explanation they gave me, I was hooked,” Lee said.

The biology teacher noted the students worked so independently, and were so motivated, that her main function was to act as their sounding board.

“They had such a clear plan and vision for how they wanted this to turn out, it was very easy to mentor,” Lee said.

The Verizon Innovative App Challenge was the brainchild of the company’s director for education, Justina Nixon-Saintil, who said the contest, which is in its fourth year, could benefit kids from disenfranchised communities.

“I personally have a huge passion for this, because I grew up in a very underserved community,” said Nixon-Saintil, who is originally from The Bronx, NY.

Past winners of the app challenge have included students from the Bronx Academy of Promise, whose “Quest Math” game uses Greek mythology to teach math principles, Nixon-Saintil said.

Another previous winner is “Hello Navi,” created by a team of girls from Resaca Middle School in Los Fresnos, TX. Like the Gunn students’ “Say It,” the app was created to help meet a disabled classmate’s needs.

Using GPS, “Hello Navi” helps blind students navigate school campuses, Nixon-Saintil noted. And developer Visus Technology bought the rights to the app directly from the girls who created it.

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