Left to right: Janessa Leija, Caitlin Gonzales and Cassandra Baquero demonstrate their app Hello Navi.

“We saw him struggling, trying to get around. What if we could create an app to help him?”

Like many great ideas, Hello Navi started with a question. The app–invented by Cassandra Baquero, Grecia Cano, Caitlyn Gonzalez, Kayleen Gonzalez, Janessa Leija and Jacqueline Garcia Torres–helps visually challenged students navigate their school grounds. Hello Navi was inspired by Andres Salas, a fellow student at Resaca Middle School who is visually impaired.

The app was one of eight national winners of the 2014 Verizon Innovative App Challenge (which is now accepting applications for the 2014-2015 cycle). The initiative challenges students to come up with ideas that could help their community or school.

“We want students to get interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by creating. We want them to focus on what’s happening in their community and ideate apps to address the issues they observe,” says Justina Nixon-Saintil, Director of Education Programs at the Verizon Foundation, who created the Challenge.

Building solutions
In September 2013, Maggie Bolado, a science teacher at Resaca Middle School, was recruiting students to build a team and participate in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge.

The girls jumped right in. “We saw a great opportunity to learn something,” say Baquero and Leija, two of the Hello Navi Team members, who are in eighth and seventh grade, respectively.

“We all got together in the classroom to discuss topics and ideas. We didn’t start as a team, but the concept of creating an app for visually impaired students brought us together. That’s when we became the Hello Navi Team,” asserts Baquero.

Once the team was set on an idea they started conceptualizing and doing their research. “We all put blindfolds on and walked around the school to experience how difficult it was for Andres to get around,” says Leija. “It was pretty difficult.”

From left to right: Janessa Leija, Grecia Cano, Caitlin Gonzales, Maggie Bolado, Jacqueline Garcia-Torres, Kayleen Gonzalez, Cassandra Baquero and Andres Salas show of their Best in Nation Award for the Verizon Innovative App Challenge.

The Hello Navi Team also met with Andres and his mobility specialist to figure out what would work and what wouldn’t. Their feedback was critical.

“We asked, ‘How long does it take Andres to get used to the school grounds?’ We found out that it takes him all summer. All summer! We wanted to give him his summer back,” says Leija.

After months on working on Hello Navi the team submitted their concept. “We had no experience in prototyping. [But] that’s what drives me. Let’s figure it out,” says Bolado. “I told the kids, ‘It’s all about being fearless. We have already won. We have collaborated, learned about leadership and what it takes to be team. We have solved a problem on campus.’”

Using voice commands, Hello Navi allows visually impaired or visually challenged students to navigate their school. Using pre-loaded paths that they can activate with their voice, the app guides students like Andres from one point to the other, faster and with little to no assistance from a mobility specialist. As their inventors describe it, Hello Navi “takes [students] by the hand, digitally.”

Hello Navi was selected as one of eight national winners from a field of 770 concepts that were submitted in the 2014 competition.

As winners, each member of the Hello Navi Team received a tablet and the school was awarded $20,000 for STEM education programs. The team also received training from Verizon employees and from the MIT Media Lab to build the app.

And, they got to visit the White House and meet President Barack Obama.

“You don’t realize how amazing it is. We were talking to him like he was a normal guy. And then you realize ‘Oh my God…’” says Leija.

“We just met the President of the United States!” adds Baquero, finishing the sentence.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to have the President telling you how amazing you are,” they say, almost in unison.

From left to right: Cassandra Baquero, Andres Salas, Janessa Leija and Caitlin Gonzales in front of the White House.

Creating a future
“Before the Challenge, I never thought about STEM. I thought it would be too difficult. Afterwards, I realized you can create a lot of things. I thought that you could just use technology to look stuff up. Now I know I can make [with technology],” says Leija.

“As we progress to the future there will be more things for us to work with. Technology will have a great impact in what we do in our real lives,” adds Baquero. “The girls were very shy [before the Challenge]. Now I observe them and I am so… there are no words. That’s my reward. I facilitated that. I made them aware that there’s a great big world outside the classroom.”

Leija and Baquero now have dreams of becoming engineers, getting scholarships, completing advanced degrees, and working with tech giants. They know that they can achieve anything they set their minds to.

“In the future everyone can create something with technology, no matter their gender or age. As long as you have imagination–we all have it but we are afraid to use it. [You should] be confident that you can create something amazing with technology. We need to have more confidence in ourselves,” states Leija.

Nothing is impossible
Bolado and the Hello Navi Team not only built an app, but they built up their school and their community. Their achievement is a great source of pride and inspiration for Resaca Middle School and for Los Fresnos, Texas, a predominantly Hispanic small town near the border with Mexico.

“We made history,” says Bolado proudly. “This is an experience we will never forget.”

Although they say that their families are not very comfortable with technology, Leija and Baquero would talk to them about their ideas and give them updates about the progress of Hello Navi.

“I would still bounce ideas off of them during our big family cookouts,” says Leija. “My grandpa loves to build things so we have that in common. My family doesn’t understand the details, but they know this is important. One of my aunts recently had a baby and she said that she would tell my little cousin about Hello Navi. I feel like [with my example] I have changed his life.”

Hello Navi is available on Android for now, but “eventually we want to make it available on all platforms,” says Baquero. Salas has tested it and given the Team his input. The girls are still improving the app and doing some coding. They have big plans for Hello Navi.

“I see the app going worldwide, helping visually impaired children around the world,” says Leija.

Images courtesy of Maggie Bolado.

During National Hispanic Heritage Month, Ciencia Puerto Rico and Borinque?a are celebrating the work of organizations inspiring, supporting and empowering Latinas in STEM fields. You can read this profile in Spanish here. Earlier posts:

“Latinas in STEM: Making Bright Futures a Reality”

“DIY Culture Empowers the Next Generation of Latinas in STEM”