In a world where technology plays an ever-increasing role, understanding how to create, innovate, and apply digital solutions is essential.  Participating in the top data science competitions for high school students can also be a great way to build your skills and gain valuable experience. The Congressional App Challenge is a fantastic opportunity for high schoolers to showcase their coding skills and make a real impact on their communities. As a past district winner, I am going to provide a comprehensive framework for success in this competition. Whether you’re an aspiring coder or a seasoned developer, this guide will help you navigate the competition and stand out. 

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What is the Congressional App Challenge?

The Congressional App Challenge is an annual competition that presents a remarkable opportunity for high school students to dive into the world of app development and computer science. It’s not just any coding contest: it’s a chance to channel your creativity and technical coding skills toward solving real-world problems and making a tangible impact on your community. This initiative is driven by members of the United States Congress who believe in the power of innovation and technology as a force for positive change. Participants are tasked with creating an original software application or game that fulfills a need within their community. 

The Congressional App Challenge is often regarded as one of the best computer science competitions for high school students. It offers a unique chance to engage with your local representatives. Members of Congress are actively involved in supporting and promoting the competition, often serving as mentors and judges. When I won, I had the chance to meet the representative of my PA district at the time, Ryan Costello, at Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. where I displayed my app. 

So what did I do to win? The app that I created combined two key aspects that I believe led to my victory: my interest and a problem that I witnessed firsthand. I built an app that allowed teachers to predict a student’s next test score based on past scores utilizing a linear regression machine learning algorithm. It was a fairly simple solution to a complicated problem, but my passion for the problem and presentation of it allowed me to win in my district. 

Computer science is a very broad field, and at the time, my primary interest was in machine learning. At the same time, I realized that many teachers at my school had an issue gauging individual student progress. So, I was able to combine the two (my interests and a problem I faced) to create an app. Many times, students attempt to solve a problem that may have too large of a scope. Solving a problem that you relate to will greatly boost your application. 

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A Step-by-Step Framework

Now that you know a bit about my experience, I’m going to outline a step-by-step framework that you can use to help win your district’s Congressional App Challenge. 

#1 Choose the Right Idea

In my opinion, this is the most crucial step and stage of the entire process. Success in the Congressional App Challenge requires choosing the right idea. You should aim to develop an app that not only addresses a real-world problem but also aligns with your passions and interests, as I mentioned before. To help you brainstorm ideas, consider the following: 

  • Think about problems you’ve personally encountered and how an app could help solve them

  • Identify local issues that could benefit from a digital solution

  • If the previous two don’t work, look at existing apps and identify areas where they could be improved or innovated upon

Coming up with a personable idea will help craft your story down the line.

#2 Understand the Guidelines

Before diving into the development process, thoroughly read and understand the competition guidelines. Each year, the Congressional App Challenge rules and requirements may vary, so make sure you’re well-acquainted with the specific requirements of the Congressional App Challenge. Key aspects to consider include:

  • Eligibility criteria (i.e., grade level, team size, etc.)

  • Submission deadlines

  • Judging criteria

  • App platforms (i.e., web-based, iOS, Android)

#3 Learn the Basics of App Development

If you’re new to app development, it’s essential to learn the fundamentals. You can start by learning popular programming languages like Python or JavaScript to get a basic feel for coding. These are also considered simpler languages to learn and will get your mind prepared to code. From here, you can begin to learn app-specific languages, like Swift, which I personally used. There are a plethora of resources available online to learn, including: 

  • YouTube

  • Codecademy

  • University offered courses

  • Courses

I found the most success through watching YouTube videos. By simply following tutorials and going through the coding steps, I was able to pick up on Swift slowly through XCode and successfully code my first app. 

#4 Plan, Prototype, and Test

Once you have the basics of coding down, it’s important to create a well-thought-out plan. Outline the app’s features, functionalities, user interface, and more. Create a wireframe or prototype to visualize how your app will work and flow. This step will help you stay organized and focused throughout the development process. Especially when starting, it’s easy to get sidetracked and add unnecessary features, so planning will help you avoid wasting time. Once you’ve finished building your prototype, you begin testing your app. Testing is crucial to ensure that your app works smoothly and efficiently. This is where you should push your app to its absolute limits to find any bugs and come up with solutions before an end consumer sees it. If you’re performing some calculations, use extremely large numbers to see if your app freezes. Usability testing can help determine if the app is user-friendly. 

#5 Document Your Work and Prepare for Your Presentation

As part of the Congressional App competition, you’ll need to submit a detailed project description, including the problem you’re addressing, how your app works, and the technology you used. Document your work meticulously, providing clear explanations, code snippets, and screenshots to support your entry. Every decision you’ve made should have a clear reason as to why it was made. This not only strengthens your submission but will be extremely useful when you’re faced with design questions. The final step in the challenge is presenting your app. Practice your presentation to ensure you can explain your mobile app’s purpose, functionality, and impact clearly. Make it personable and relate why you created the app to your personal story to help drive your submission further. Be prepared to answer questions from the additional judges. 

#6 Submit Your Entry!

Now comes the easy part of submitting your entry. When you’re satisfied with your app and presentation, submit your entry before the deadline. Double-check that all required documents and additional information are included in your submission. You don’t want to get this far only to be ineligible because of a technicality. After submitting your app, don’t forget to share your project around! Highlight the positive impact that your app can have on your community and the world. 

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When it’s all said and done, you now have an app that you created from scratch. That’s no easy feat! You can take your app beyond the challenge and begin to reach out to people in your community to see if they’d be willing to use it. By following this framework, you set yourself up for success at the Congressional App Challenge. But remember, participating in this competition is not just about winning; it’s also about gaining valuable skills and making a positive impact on your community. Additionally, consider expanding your horizons by exploring other prestigious competitions, such as the VEX Robotics Competition or other best AI robotics competitions for high school students. Good luck, and may your coding journey be a successful one!