April 4, 2018 at 5:30 p.m.

Students overcame time crunch to win Verizon contest

By By Paul [email protected]

Hauser Jr./Sr. High School students' late entry in the 2015 Verizon Innovative App Challenge left little room for error.

Within three weeks, the Project Lead the Way eighth-graders would have to select, conceptualize and present a unique mobile phone app that would be judged against those of much larger schools across Indiana.

But the team excelled, becoming the only Indiana middle school to take "Best in State" honors.

Three members of that dream team -- Skylar Sharp, Caleb Wasson and Chloe Kennedy -- attended a Tuesday meeting of the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Board to accept the board's congratulations on behalf of themselves and their teammates. Team members not in attendance for various reasons were Parker Eickbush, Dillon Garwood, Kaalob Schmidt, Derek Stenneski and Ethan Wallace.

Hauser Principal J.P. Mayer praised the team for coming up with an idea that would help special-needs children if it was ever developed.

Called "Speak Bot Pro," the app would let students who can't speak clearly in the classroom because of medical, developmental or language barriers use icons to communicate verbally with teachers. The idea came largely from team members' interviews with Hauser educators, part of the team's broader effort to come up with a specialized app that would help address an actual need.

The students didn't find out about the challenge until October. That was about two months after other schools in the competition were already developing their own ideas, class teacher Deborah Gaff said.

"Each class we had to go in and do tons of stuff in just 45 minutes, because we only had about three weeks," Kennedy said.

Nevertheless, the experience was valuable and rewarding.

"We all had similar ideas and shared them with each other," Sharp said. "We all agreed on everybody's idea, and that's how it all came together."

Board member Andrew Hunnicutt, the parent of a child with special needs, grew emotional toward the end of the school board meeting as he addressed the three students in attendance.

"I have struggled for many years, and you wouldn't believe the amount of software I've purchased that does things you're talking about," Hunnicutt said. "I can't tell you how much it means to me.

"I just want to say thank you. It's pretty amazing stuff."

Some of the team's $5,000 in prize money could go toward developing the app for practical use, class teacher Deborah Gaff said. Also, from now until Jan. 31, anyone can help Hauser win the Fan Favorite award by texting SPEAKBOT2 to 22333. The winner will receive an additional $15,000 and the chance to work with experts from the MIT Media Lab to turn its concept into a working app.

The Hauser team developed a three-minute video and a 30-second commercial that are available for viewing on the YouTube website.

People can key in "Hauser High School Speakbot" to find it.

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