The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down a host of high school events, but it’s also led Vernon Hills High School officials to expand their contest for teenage techies and science gurus.
The school’s Innovation Fair — which for two years has provided $3,000 in cash and prizes to its students in a contest to develop technology to help real companies solve real-world problems — will be virtual, open to all high school students in Cook and Lake counties, and include a new coronavirus component this spring.
The new VHacks Innovation Fair, sponsored by the Computer Science Teachers Association, will still have its traditional business categories but has added a category for developing tech and non-tech solutions to help communities battle the pandemic.
Among the entries is a new app to help students budget time properly while doing e-learning from home and another that can be used to organize social media fundraisers to provide donated food to first responders and medical workers on the front lines.
Deadline for entries is Friday, May 15, with winners announced May 22. Contestants can team up with as many as four fellow students.
“We are hoping this event will give kids the opportunity to find the silver lining to all of this because they will be helping people during this (pandemic),” said Vernon Hills High sophomore Shayna Weinstein, who heads the student side of the school’s computer science program.
Weinstein, who participates in the contest, spent the last year organizing the 2020 contest, including asking local companies to submit problems they need solved and securing sponsors and a caterer. When it went virtual, she reached out to other schools and businesses to make sure participation would be high.
“We just want to get young people motivated to help out in the community,” she said.
Vernon Hills High School computer science teacher Adam Lueken, who created the original Innovation Fair, said 26 students participated last year, and 39 students have signed this year, with a few days left before the deadline.
“I came up with this to see if there was any way my students could work with companies to learn real-world skills,” Lueken said. “There are already kids out there doing some really awesome things, and it’s nice to reward them. I also always hope that the kids who are out there who have an idea or something they’ve been working on, and maybe they never did anything with it, this might be the push they need to finish it off.”
The keynote judge for the competition is Sonja Delafosse, global education program manager for Microsoft. Entries will also be judged by a variety of professionals, including software developers at Amazon and Facebook.
Besides the COVID-19 category, there are 11 divisions that coordinate with specific businesses or organizations and their needs. For instance, BD Packaging, a company in Vernon Hills, needs two apps created — one to serve as a calibration logger and one as a chemical organizer.
And Vernon Hills High School’s Driver Ed department is looking for an app to help track student driver hours during this period of no in-person attendance at school.
Last year, Weinstein developed an app for a local landscaping company that needed to organize incident reports that could be filed by employees from the field.
“Let’s say while mowing a client’s property, a rock went through the mower and it shattered a window,” Weinstein said. “The app can be used to log that in the field and then that information goes directly into a spreadsheet that can be looked at in the office. The company is still using the app today, and I stay in contact with them to make sure that it’s functioning properly.”
This year, for the COVID-19 division, she is using her 3-D printer to develop more comfortable ear clips for masks. And she is working on an app to connect potential customers with people who can make those masks.
Weinstein, who is also busy with school plays and the math team and dance, says she’s having a ball with her involvement in computer science.
“I was doing stuff with math and science in kindergarten and pre-K,” she said. “I love being on my phone. I love being connected. I love technology. I’ve probably always been more of a technology nerd than a girlie girl. But it’s so much fun.”
For information about the contest or to enter, visit VHacks.net.