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The City Journals

Mountain Heights Academy students create virtual buddy bench app for national contest

Feb 17, 2020 02:50PM ● By Jet Burnham

Students from Mountain Heights Academy are finalists in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

A team of students from Mountain Heights Academy, an online public school based in West Jordan, has been chosen as a finalist in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest. The national competition challenges students in grades 6–12 to creatively use STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills to solve complicated issues affecting their communities.

The MHA team of students is developing a phone app called Buddy Bench to solve a common social problem among teens. Working as a virtual version of a buddy bench, on which kids sit if they need a friend to play with on elementary school playgrounds, the app connects teens when they need a friend.

“Sometimes, kids are hesitant to attend a school event because they don't know anybody,” said Amy Pace, science department lead at MHA and one of the team’s advisers. “So, this was the idea that if they could make a friend before and know somebody was there waiting to be their friend when they got there, then they would be more willing to come.”

MHA students live in cities all over the state. Because they don’t meet in a physical classroom each day, some feel as though they don’t know the other students and are reluctant to go alone to club activities, service projects and field trips.

“The hope is that not only do they have a friend for that event, but that they can continue that relationship and that connection,” said sophomore Alexis Marsilio.

Encouraging connections is a part of MHA’s mission. Connecting with others is also a preventive factor for bullying, social anxiety and suicide.

“We think that if there is more connection between the students, that's helping them feel less alone,” said Kate Larson, an 11th grader on the team.

Last year, there were some suicide attempts by MHA students.

“It's something that hits us all quite hard,” Alexis said. “So, we decided to try and make a difference.”

There is a lot of enthusiasm from students to be involved in the project. While there are 10 students on the development team, 50 students have signed up to be on the Buddy Crew and volunteer to be matched with others who request a friend for an activity.

“It's really cool to be a part of that crew and provide them with the opportunity to feel included and welcome,” said Kate Larson.

Pace said the platform appeals to teens because they are already comfortable connecting through social apps. Team members have varying degrees of experience in digital skills. The contest provided an opportunity for them to develop these skills for a good purpose.

Competitions are a regular part of the MHA experience.

“We have a variety of competitions that we encourage and support the students to participate in,” Pace said.

Students are motivated by contests, said sophomore Kate Watson, who is currently working on projects for two different contests.

“When you have it as an assignment, required as a part of your grade, it takes away the heart of it because you're being forced to do it so you get a good grade,” she said. “When you're in a contest voluntarily, it really shows that you have a passion for that particular topic and that you really want to do something about a certain issue.”

Kate Larson said winning is not why students enjoy participating in the contests—though they do win quite often.

“We have learned a ton, and we have found something that we're all passionate about,” she said. “It's really the fact that we want to make a difference is what matters most to us.”

The MHA team was one of six Utah finalists which included Jordan Academy for Technology & Careers, Riverton; Richfield High School, Richfield; Nebo Advanced Learning Center, Salem; West Bountiful Elementary School, West Bountiful; and Valley Elementary School, Eden.

In December, MHA advanced to the top 100 finalist phase. The ultimate grand prize is $100,000 in technology and classroom materials, and a trip to Washington, D.C., to present their project to members of Congress. MHA has already won $15,000 in school supplies and Samsung product—including a laptop, a tablet and a phone they will use to create a video for the next phase of the contest.

“It's going to be a promotional video to explain what our idea is,” Alexis said. “We have an upcoming event that we're going to go ahead and use our Buddy Bench Crew for and just show what it is like for our video.”

Lora Gibbons, the other team adviser, is thrilled that the team is moving on. She has been impressed with the students’ teamwork so far.

“The innovative response and collaboration of all these great thinkers is really what's going to tie together in a beautiful kind of tapestry to help a problem that affects everyone,” Gibbons said.

Eighth grader Joshua Wood, who has done most of the programming, is proud of what the team has accomplished.

“It wasn't just one of the teachers,” he said. “It was all of us combined to come up with this idea.”

The team said teens at other schools could benefit from the app. Pace said as an open educational resource, MHA often shares curriculum with other schools. 

“Once we get the bugs worked out and develop it into a program that is sustainable and works, then it would be really easy for us to share it out with other schools,” Pace said.