A pair of students from Santa Barbara High School (SBHS) recently created an award-winning, local solution to a nationwide problem: the shortage of student engagement in school clubs.
Christian Sanchez, a senior, and Antonio Ayala, a sophomore — primed with knowledge gleaned from the school’s Computer Science Academy — developed a web app last year to increase student connection at SBHS using an anti-cyberbullying approach.
As a result, the students won the 2022 Congressional App Challenge, and were honored by Congressmember Salud Carbajal last month. In addition, the students got to meet with Carbajal — whom they referred to as a “cool guy” — to have a conversation about the app’s potential.
“It was great. We were talking about the impacts this app can have,” Sanchez told the Independent. “How it not only just applies to Santa Barbara High School, or Santa Barbara in general — it can apply to many other schools in the nation.”
The app, called One Connected, allows students to easily browse and join clubs at SBHS, chat with their peers, and do so safely.
“It’s like any other messaging app, but it’s specialized for the school,” Ayala said. “Only school emails can log in, and it has filters to filter out the bad stuff some people might type.”
Because of the app’s moderated communication features, including a way for users to report any potentially harmful messages to school administrators, it effectively works as an anti-cyberbullying application.
Student club leaders have the ability to create “spaces” on the app, where they can add a picture and description of their club. Those spaces then get posted to a club directory that all students can access. Students can learn all about a club and then simply tap to join it and message other members.
What motivated the pair to create the app was the noticeable lack of student engagement and communication with student clubs at SBHS, especially when emails were used for club correspondence, which high schoolers are notorious for ignoring.
“Not a lot of students check their emails, especially their school emails,” Sanchez said. “So we were thinking, ‘What’s a more accessible way to do this?’”
They came up with the chat feature as an easier and more reliable method of communication, particularly because, as Ayala pointed out, many other messaging apps are blocked by the school. One Connected, on the other hand, is accessible even on school iPads and computers.
Sanchez encouraged his peers in the Student UN, a group of all the club and program student leaders that meet regularly with the principal, to sign up for the app. He said a good amount of students have already “logged in” and created accounts.
Ayala and Sanchez began developing the app in May 2022 and used much of their time over summer break to work on it. They said winning the honor “feels great,” considering the amount of effort that went into it; just one coding problem could take a long time to fix, meaning they’d sometimes spend up to eight hours a day working on bugs and writing code.
However, the students said their teachers in the Computer Science Academy were supportive throughout the entire process. Most of the code in the app was a result of what the two learned through their Developing Software for the Web class, and they could turn to their teacher for help with any bugs in the code or questions that arose.
“We are so proud of our students,” said SBHS Principal Elise Simmons. “Christian and Antonio not only developed a useful app for Santa Barbara High School, but they also did it while ensuring their work is inclusive for everyone.”
The Congressional App Challenge began in 2015 to encourage students to learn how to code and celebrate the achievements of young people in STEM. The contest recognizes middle and high school students in congressional districts around the county for creating original apps that address local and widespread problems.
For winning the contest, One Connected is eligible to be featured in the United States Capitol Building this spring and placed on the house.gov website. Winning students are also invited to a reception in Washington, D.C., which Sanchez and Ayala said they are hopeful they will be able to attend with Carbajal this April.
This isn’t the first time SBHS Computer Science Academy students achieved the honor. Last year, Noah and Ramon Wang won for their Watershed Brigade app on the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper website, and several years ago, a group won for an app that highlighted attractions in Santa Barbara.
“Santa Barbara Unified wants to help our students learn skills that will help them after graduation,” said Superintendent Dr. Hilda Maldonado. “The work Christian and Antonio did is an example of the great resources we have available throughout the district. We hope One Connected helps bring students together at SBHS and inspires other students to learn about computer science.”