Take it from Longmont middle-schoolers: You can win the national app contest, too

Last Thanksgiving, while most Altona Middle School students were at home eating turkey and shopping on Black Friday with their families, Rachel Su, Advika Jayanti, Jeffrey Hew, Sterling Gardner and Carolyn Qiu bundled up in warm clothes and headed to their school’s computer lab.

The five middle-schoolers were brainstorming an app, Diction Defender, for the 2016 Verizon Innovative App Challenge with the help of Mollie Kelleher, Altona’s computer science teacher. As part of their entry, the team filmed a three-minute video and wrote an essay about their app idea, a game that helps users practice English and grammar by dragging and dropping clauses into a sentence.

The idea for Diction Defender came from Kelleher’s background as an English teacher, as well as the lack of English education apps in general. Kelleher had collected common sentence structure mistakes from her students throughout the years and invented a few games for her students to practice grammar, so the students drew upon her materials for Diction Defender.

“To be honest, none of us wanted to do an app in English because none of us were really good at it,” Su, 13, said. “But then we thought, ‘If we’re all bad at English, then we might as well do one in English, right?’ Plus, there’s already a ton of math apps, science apps, social studies apps and geography apps.”

Little did they know their idea would sweep the state and regional competition levels in January, eventually winning them Best in Nation out of thousands of schools and bring home $20,000 for Altona.

“I couldn’t believe it when we won,” Su said. “I remember checking the Verizon website that night and calling Ms. Kelleher, and she was like, ‘Darn! You figured it out!’ ”

“Darn,” because the next day the school held a “surprise” assembly for the five students, where they received the money as well as other prizes like tablets and backpacks. They were also invited to the 2016 Technology Student Association Conference in Nashville, Tenn., to present their app.

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