Sign Talk wins Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s 2022 Congressional App Challenge in California’s 19th District

Rep. Zoe Lofgren has named Sofia Penttila of Notre Dame High School and Aparna Bhaskar of Notre Dame High School as the winners of the 2022 Congressional App Challenge in California’s 19th District.

When asked what inspired the creation of Sign Talk, the students said, ”Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Google Meets, Skype, and Facetime have come to define how people communicate with one another. Each day, an average of 300 million people use virtual conferencing applications to conduct everything from social calls to work meetings. As technology progresses, this number will only increase. Despite the many benefits digital communication has over traditional forms of communication, many disparities arise when we digitize communication. The needs of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community have been largely overlooked in the development of video conferencing platforms. After witnessing first-hand the struggles one of our deaf classmates experienced with online learning and video calls, we felt inclined to see if there was anything we could do to help. We interviewed our classmate to learn more about her experiences as someone who is hard of hearing and were surprised by how much we take for granted when it comes to communicating with others. For many individuals who rely on ASL to communicate, interpreters are necessary for speaking with other students who do not know ASL, preventing private conversations from occurring and subsequently harming deaf students’ social connections. Although platforms such as Zoom have some features such as live transcripts and the features to spotlight sign language interpreters, no option exists to allow ASL users to communicate directly in ASL, without the involvement of an interpreter. Additionally, we learned about the cost associated with ASL interpreters and how some schools and events often forgo hiring interpreters due to their high costs. Despite the clear need for improvements to the capabilities of ASL apps and features, a quick search in the app store reveals that there is no application that translates ASL directly into English. Sign Talk changes this by allowing people who use ASL to communicate directly with those who don’t understand it, without the need for an interpreter or expensive fees. In doing so, we enable ASL users to engage in the digital world and make sure their voices are heard.”

The Congressional App Challenge smashed previous participation records in 2022. All told, 9,011 students registered for this year’s competition – creating 2,707 fully-functioning apps for 335 Members of Congress across 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the District of Columbia. This year’s competition set the record for most student registrations, most apps submitted, most apps per district submitted, and most districts receiving over 20 apps. The wildly successful competition continues to impress upon House Members the importance of computer science education and the need to develop a pipeline of diverse, domestic STEM talent.

The Congressional App Challenge is an official initiative of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Members of Congress host contests in their districts for middle school and high school students, encouraging them to learn to code and inspiring them to pursue careers in computer science. Each participating Member of Congress selects a winning app from their district, and each winning team is invited to showcase their winning app to Congress during our annual #HouseOfCode festival. The program is a public-private partnership made possible through funding from Omidyar Network, AWS, Rise, theCoderSchool, Apple, and others.

The 2023 Congressional App Challenge will launch in June of 2023, and eligible students can pre-register for the competition now.