Program trains girls to build phone apps, embrace science

Students from Technovation Challenge show off their Android app idea. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The mood was serious at 8:00 am Saturday at the David Brower Center. Fifty girls from Berkeley and Albany high schools were milling around the lobby in anticipation of showing off the Android apps they had spent weeks designing.

In one corner was a team of five girls from Berkeley High with “EcoPrint,” an app that helps people trace their carbon footprint.

“It’s like a quiz. It asks questions to get a sense of your impact on the environment, like how many times did you eat meat or do you drive,” said Lauren Hoffman, a junior in Berkeley High’s International Program. “Then we give them suggestions on how to reduce their carbon imprint.”

In the opposite corner another Berkeley High team was showing off “Connect the Stars,” an app that teaches kids about the constellations.

“It’s like connect the dots,” said Donntay Moore-Thomas, a senior in the International Program. “It helps children learn about the constellations in an engaging and fun way.”

The team that produced the "Connect the Stars," app and their mentor. From left, Nicola Tsai, Alexxis Hinson, Luz Tur-Sinai Gozal, Donntay Moore-Thomas, Krishnaveni Palaniappan

In between were nine other teams that had designed a wide variety of Android apps, from the “NapApp,” that helps students manage their daily schedule so they get enough sleep, all while teaching about the science of sleep, to “Cram Jam,” a video-sharing mobile app that uses teacher-created videos to teach subjects.

The creations were the result of an innovative non-profit program called Technovation Challenge which is trying to bring more women and more diversity into the technology field by exposing young girls to the industry. During a 10-week program, the girls learn computer programming, come up with an idea for an app, research the competition, develop a business plan and learn about high-tech entrepreneurship.

The program, which was started in 2010 by the Los Angeles-based science education non-profit, Iridescent, is broadly supported by some of the country’s most successful tech companies. Sponsors include Google, Microsoft, Zynga, Berkeley Lab,, Disney,, and many more.

“The biggest problem we are trying to solve at Technovation Challenge is one of confidence,” said AnnaLise Hoopes, the director of educational and corporate partnerships at Iridescent. “Women tend to leave the STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) world because of a lack of self-confidence. We want to give the girls a taste of the rewards of innovation so they can go on to build something later on.”

For the last few months, about 50 girls from Berkeley and Albany have been going up to the Berkeley Lab on Tuesday afternoons. The girls were split into teams and paired with female scientists from the lab who served as mentors. During their workshops, the students not only got a glimpse of what it was like to work in a scientific environment, they learned specific skills, such as how to use Google’s App Inventor and how to write a business plan. Technovation Challenge has seven programs in high schools around the Bay Area, and one each in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, serving a total of 520 girls.

“I didn’t know much about computer programming and I thought it would be fun to expand my background and try something new,” said Siyao Ma, a sophomore at Albany High.

When Corie Ralston, a staff scientist in protein crystallography at LBL, heard about Technovation Challenge, she jumped at the opportunity to help out, she said. She put out the call to other female scientists at the lab and coordinated the mentor program. She wanted to show young female students that it is possible for women to go into the sciences, work in groups, and succeed.

“I kind of want to be a role model,” said Ralston.

The team from EcoPrints present their idea to a panel of judges. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Around 9:00 am on Saturday, the teams entered the auditorium at the Brower Center to pitch their apps to a panel of entrepreneurs from GroupOn, LitePoint, Berkeley Lab, and the New Schools Venture Fund. Each team gave a Power Point presentation that described their prototype, explained why it would succeed in the marketplace, discussed the research conducted to make sure the product was viable, and talked about the business plan. Then the judges asked questions.

“The poise and confidence of the teams really impressed me,” said Jonathan Carter, the deputy director for computing sciences at Berkeley Lab.

The winning presentation came from a group of girls from Albany High School. They created an app called “StudiCafe,” which connects students’ progress in school to social media. Students study flashcards, take multiple choice tests, and use and other study guides. They can share their scores on Facebook and Twitter. The app allows students to study while in a car or on the bus without having to lug around heavy books. But the social media part of it makes studying fun.

“Since 78% of teens are on social media, they would like to have a social way of studying,” said Elena Prioreschi, a ninth grader.

The judges praised the girls who developed “StudiCafe” for finding a clear problem and a clear market.

Denise Le Ung and Elena Prioreschi worked on the winning app, StudiCafe, and will compete in the nationals on May 3. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The team will present their app again on Thursday May 3 at the national competition for Technovation Challenge. The winner of that competition will have its app professionally produced.

Click here for a complete list of apps developed by the students from Berkeley and Albany high schools.

Peter Rodriguez, a history teacher at Berkeley’s International Program, praised the Technovation Challenge for exposing young women to a host of new skills. There were about 25 students from Berkeley High.

“They learned a variety of things,” said Rodriguez. “There was a big emphasis on how to get a start-up going from the idea of having a problem, having a solution, getting user feedback, and building on that instead of a top-down approach.”

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  • Awesome — THIS is hacking (in the positive sense:  creating).  Such a clear contrast to that silly opinionator piece in which the author suggested making computer science a punishment for the kids who stole a powerschool password.

    Well done ladies!

  • concerned citizen

     With all due respect, I think you might have misinterpreted her focus, in that opinionator piece.

    I think it is important to remember that these students were not
    falsifying actual test answers, as many of the more noteworthy cases we
    have seen as of late. And by more thoroughly understanding why the
    students did what they did, perhaps this can be used as a learning
    opportunity to understand the ways in which this was, to put it in
    biological terms, an evolutionary response to a challenging or unnatural
    external constraint. With this framing, perhaps “cheaters” can be
    converted into achievers and also improve the educational environment
    for everyone. (A quote from the article.)

    The key phrase here is …to put it in biological terms, an evolutionary response to a challenging or unnatural external constraint.  With this framing, perhaps cheaters can be converted into achievers…

    Both the article about the young women creating apps and this idea contribute toward an improved educational environment for everyone. Misplaced creativity can be rechanneled and with caring mentors and a program with structure, I’ll bet that the BHS kids who stole the password, just might find a positive focus for their creativity.  Think “both/and” rather then “either/or”.

  • The Sharkey

    Stealing a password is not creative.

  • concerned citizen

     With this framing, perhaps cheaters can be converted into achievers…(Quote from article.)

    Stealing a password could be interpreted as creativity gone awry.  Tomato, tomahto.

  • The Sharkey

    Only if the password was stolen in a creative way, and there is no indication so far that the way the password was stolen was any more creative than a teenager shoplifting a candy bar.

  • Barbara Ann Yoder

    Great program! Great piece! Thanks, Frances, for putting the spotlight on Technovation Challenge and the awesome, innovative women and girls in Berkeley.

  • Perhaps you missed this quote

    If a higher level of technical skill was involved in finding the right password, these kids might be good with computers. And considering they charged their classmates a nominal fee and got over 50 of them to pay, certainly there are entrepreneurial skills to be tapped and put to a better use than cheating. Perhaps a course in computer science could be required as part of the penalty for breaking and entering.

    Computer science isn’t a punishment. It’s an art/science/craft. This web information we’re enjoying was not built in a penal colony.

  • Bruce Love


    This web information we’re enjoying was not built in a penal colony.

    Arguably otherwise.