HARWICH – When Monomoy Regional High School technology and engineering teacher Rich Oldach was notified about the Massachusetts Ninth Congressional District’s annual Congressional App Challenge, he quickly thought of Jessica Brown, a senior in his advanced placement computer science class.
“When it came to my attention, I thought of her immediately,” Oldach said.
Oldach was aware that one of his co-teachers, Larry Souza, needed to figure out a system that allowed the school to monitor the capacity at football games, and he suggested Brown connect with Souza to discuss the issue.
“With COVID, you have to track not only how many people you let in, but who is coming and going from the game so they can track and trace,” said Oldach, who coaches football with Souza, the varsity team’s head coach. “I knew about that problem and said, ‘Hey, Jessica, why don’t you go talk to Mr. Souza, he could really use your help.’”
“I immediately took interest in the competition and was really excited about the opportunity,” said Brown, who lives in West Harwich. “Mr. Oldach and I spoke about potential broader topics and we both agreed that COVID-19 would be a really relevant topic and that it would be a good goal to try to come up with something that would maybe help aid in the pandemic in some way.”
Brown aimed to solve multiple problems. First, she wanted to create an application the school could use to track attendees at multiple entrances. She also needed to make a field for attendees’ names and email addresses in case they needed to be contacted for COVID-19 tracing.
“I had to go back and make some adjustments after consulting with Mr. Oldach and Mr. Souza,” Brown said. “I had to implement certain fields into the database that corresponded with what they needed. That was the trickiest part, but it was also the part that I learned the most from.”
In January, Brown received a letter from Rep. William Keating informing her that her Event Capacity Tracker was the winning entry in the Ninth District’s 2020 Congressional App Challenge. The letter noted that the judges were very impressed with Brown’s work.
“You clearly met all of the requirements of the contest, as you identified the need, mapped out a solution and explained the code you needed to work with in order to develop the application,” the letter reads. “It was apparent to me that your work on the app involved great thought and problem-solving abilities.”
Congressman Keating also praised Brown for her choice of topic.
“I was also very impressed that you addressed such an important topic, the COVID-19 pandemic,” he wrote. “The pandemic has been uniquely challenging for high school students, teachers, administrators, coaches and parents. I can only imagine how COVID has impacted you, especially in your senior year of high school. I applaud you for applying your programming skills to such an essential problem and creating something useful in time of adversity.”
Keating ended the letter by saying he hopes to arrange a virtual ceremony so he and Brown can meet “in person,” though Brown said she’s yet to hear about when that will take place.
Oldach said he was most impressed by how quickly and effectively Brown executed the project given the requirements she was tasked with solving.
“She designed, developed and built the app in a matter of three or four weeks,” he said. “The coding is very impressive, but to take some of these requirements and sit down and put it all together into a design, then code up the design, implement it and test it is a level of maturity that’s beyond any of the students I currently have in my class. This is definitely kind of a college level.”
It makes sense that Brown’s level of maturity often mirrors a college student, as she’s consistently tapped into her passion throughout her high school career, which included three years at Sharon High School before her family relocated to West Harwich before the start of the current school year.
As a freshman, Brown started a robotics team at Sharon. Then, as a sophomore, she was granted permission to intern for the InfoLab Group at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory for a few weeks in January 2019. That’s where she met Boris Katz, the principal research scientist at the lab who also serves as the head of the InfoLab Group.
Knowing Brown’s passion for robotics, Katz introduced her to a former captain of MIT’s robotics team who then introduced her to the current captain. That summer, before her junior year, Brown returned to MIT to continue her internship. She continued her internship, albeit remotely, during this past summer.
Since starting her internship, she’s also participated on MIT’s robotics team when the college is in session.
“I’m the only high school-aged member of the MIT roboteam, which is really cool,” Brown said. “It’s been a great learning experience for me because they’re really doing high-level stuff. It’s been a great supplement to my experience with high school robotics.”
Brown isn’t sure what her future will bring as she’s still in the middle of the college application process. However, she does know she wants to focus on robotics. In fact, after winning the Congressional App Challenge, the Monomoy senior has shifted her focus to a new project.
“Right now, I’m doing an independent study and I’m building an autonomous robot,” she said. “I’m essentially trying to get it to walk a dog. It’s complete but there are some kinks I’m trying to work out.”
Email Brad Joyal at Brad@capecodchronicle.com