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Wilson students utilize technology to solve real-world problems

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Seniors win district- and state-level contests for a prototype of their new service app, SUR+

CONNECTION PHOTO: HANNAH RANK - Wilson seniors Simon Haats (from left), Juliette Coia, Nathan Jewell, Ethan Holmgren and Marley Bennett designed an award-winning app that connects local organizations with resources. 
When Wilson High seniors Marley Bennett and Juliette Coia worked at a local breakfast joint one summer, they noticed something that troubled them. Whatever the restaurant did not serve, often amounting to pounds of leftover food, it threw out at the end of the week.

Bennett is president of a service club at Wilson and Coia helps out at an elementary school a few times a week. Because they were already tapped in to volunteerism, the wasted food made them wonder: What if they could find a way to connect restaurants to shelters and other organizations in need of food?

Coia and Bennett had a knack for coding, so they decided to put their skills to use to make that thought a reality. And after spending three weeks working out the kinks at the summer Northwest Advanced Programming Workshop, the first iteration of the SUR+ (pronounced surplus) app was born.

"The app is designed so that restaurants and other organizations can declare, 'Oh, I've got some leftover food,' and then if some food bank's like, 'Oh, we need food," the app will say, 'OK, you guys can bring your food here.' Easy," says Wilson student Ethan Holmgren.

Holmgren, along with fellow seniors Simon Haats and Nathan Jewell, joined Bennett and Coia to flesh out the concept behind the app.

The boys caught wind of the project after Coia and Bennett had entered their original creation into the 2016 Congressional App Challenge — a nationwide competition that involved 2,160 student participants across 123 Congressional districts.

"We won our district (Oregon's 3rd Congressional District, represented by Earl Blumenaur), which was exciting," Bennett explains. "Then we were thinking more about it and how it could have a broader impact."

Instead of just linking restaurants and food banks, the current iteration of SUR+ connects any prospective donor with area nonprofits that are seeking household items and service volunteers, along with food. The students then entered their newer idea into the Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge, which aims to give middle- and high-school students the opportunity to build an app idea they've developed.

The team won for the state of Oregon, receiving $5,000 for the Wilson computer science department and tablets for each team member.

Chris Bartlo, who teaches computer science at Wilson, runs the summer programming workshop where Bennett and Coia developed the app and had encouraged the girls to join. He said it can be hard to recruit bright young students who are not naturally inclined to programming, so he's heartened to see that the SUR+ group includes a broader cross-section of the student body.

"Nathan, for instance, has known he's going to be a computer programmer since he was 4 or something," Bartlo explains. "But these girls came and they said, 'Hey, I'm good at math and I really like problem solving. Maybe I can help people by making something really cool.' And I think that was really a big appeal."

Bartlo says he's excited to see if the app's success and recognition will encourage more students to try their hand at computer science.

"When you see a group of kids who look like you winning a big prize, then you're like, 'Hey, I could do that, too,'" Bartlo says.

He added that one overall goal for the field of computer science is to get more young women involved in programming.

"We're at about 30 percent (involvement) right now, and we've really done a big, active outreach over the years," he says.

Though Coia says that computer science is "just not my thing, I don't think," she did value the opportunity to help out the community.

"I really like being able to combine computer science and volunteering," she says.

Bennett agrees.

"I think I do want to study computer science in college," she says, "just so that I continue to combine my other interests with the programming that I'm doing."

Contact Connection reporter Hannah Rank This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-636-1281 ext. 105.