Students in Point Pleasant Borough High School teacher Nick Gattuso’s Advanced Software Engineering Topics class have been exposed to a number of incredible opportunities as a result of the innovative programming projects they develop in the class, especially those applications associated with Panther Assisted Learning Software, or PALS. The set of assistive learning applications, which have been in development over the last six years by Mr. Gattuso’s students, feature apps developed through a unique collaborative effort between students in the software engineering classes and special education students in the school’s Life Skills/Multiply Disabled class. The apps provide the special needs students with essential skills to foster their increased independence. An unexpected benefit of the apps’ development, however, is the opportunities they’ve created for recognition and acclaim for the developers.
In just a few short years, PALS along with other community-based apps developed by the programming students have caught the attention of numerous news organizations and education leaders and have received extensive recognition and awards from various local and state organizations.
In 2016, PALS was selected as one of 10 special education programs from New Jersey to receive the 15th Annual Innovations in Special Education Award, an award that recognizes exemplary programs for special education students. Also in 2016, the class was featured on the Emmy-Award winning broadcast magazine program “Classroom Close-up NJ” a program that profiles innovative education taking place in New Jersey’s public schools. That same year, a team of students from the class received an honorable mention in the 2016 Congressional App Challenge, a competition aimed at encouraging U.S. high school students to learn how to code by creating their own applications. School districts from across the country participate in the Challenge that is intended to highlight the value of computer science and STEM education.
A year later the first app created under PALS Hospital Education Learning Program, or PALS HELP, which is a new suite of tools designed to assist students in the Life Skills/Multiple Disabled class with volunteer work they perform at a local hospital along with the Point Pleasant Borough High School information app were named finalists in the 2017 STEAM Tank Challenge. Modeled after the popular “Shark Tank” television series, the STEAM Tank Challenge promotes innovative STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) education initiatives taking place in New Jersey schools. The class will once again be heavily featured in the 2018 STEAM Tank Competition, with three of 18 total apps chosen from New Jersey to be included in this year’s championships.
Earlier this year, four of Mr. Gattuso’s students submitted a new app for consideration in the 2017 Congressional App Challenge for New Jersey’s Fourth Congressional District. The app, Lunch Buddy, which was developed by students Theresa Cardone, Luke Boylan, Jaspreet Kaur and Adrian Wittmann, was designed to promote inclusion by assisting special needs students with finding classmates to sit with at lunchtime. With the press of a button, a special education student can send a message to one of the dozens of general education students that have signed up for the program, notifying the recipients that they need a buddy to sit with during that day’s lunch period.
In December, Mr. Gattuso was notified that Lunch Buddy won First Place in the 2017 Congressional App Challenge for the 4th District of New Jersey, which is represented by Congressman Chris Smith. A couple months later, in February, Congressman Smith visited the class where the students demonstrated Lunch Buddy as well as more than 10 additional apps in development by Mr. Gattuso’s students and in the process created a lifelong fan and advocate in the congressman.
The congressman said he was “blown away” and that he found all the apps demonstrated to be “most impressive.” He also expressed a desire to make sure everyone was aware of the amazing programming work taking place in Mr. Gattuso’s class, printing information about the winning app in his Congressional Newsletter and on his official Facebook page.
The four Lunch Buddy developers along with Mr. Gattuso had the opportunity last month to reunite with Congressman Smith on Capitol Hill where they were among the 200 2017 Congressional App Challenge winners from 39 states who participated in the 3rd Annual #HouseOfCode Demo Day.
On April 12, Theresa Cardone, Luke Boylan, Jaspreet Kaur and Adrian Wittmann reported to the Rayburn House Office Building where they demonstrated their winning app to their fellow App Challenge winners, representatives, teachers, parents and congressman as well as reps from various tech companies, including the co-founder or Amazon Web Services.
In addition to general praise and positive feedback from the audience, Lunch Buddy also caught the attention of Congressional App Challenge Co-Chair Tim Ryan (D-OH), who featured the Boro students in a promotional video that he shared to his social media accounts.
In talking about Lunch Buddy, Congressman Ryan said, “This app is super cool,” he said before turning it over to Team Leader Theresa Cardone for a brief description of the app.
“Lunch Buddy is for the special needs kids,” she said. “Sometimes they feel lonely during lunch and all they have to do is press a big red button and a text message will be sent to everyone who signs up. It’s to help break the barrier between special needs kids and other students because students need to realize they are no different than us and they’re really fun to hang out with. And it’s also to help with their social skills.”
“So on the app, if they’re lonely they can hit the button and it will go out to their friends and their friends can then get in touch with them,” Congressman Ryan asked.
Jaspreet Kaur added future plans for Lunch Buddy that include adding a personal interest field to encourage students with similar interests to buddy up to facilitate conversation and promote lasting friendships built on common interests.
“I love this,” Congressman Ryan said in the video. “Challenging these kids like we’re doing with this competition. They have huge hearts, they’re smart and this is the next generation. They’re going to build the new economy for us.”
The students also exchanged business cards with a representative from Maryland who expressed interest in implementing Lunch Buddy in his home district.
“It was an awesome experience,” said Theresa Cardone. “Before I knew I wanted to pursue a career in computer science but after seeing how far it can take you, I’m even more passionate. It took us to Washington DC, imagine how much further we can go.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Jaspreet Kaur and Luke Boylan, both of whom cited the overall experience for making them more passionate about the Computer Science field while Adrian Wittman credited the trip with providing new ideas for future app designs.
Though the #HouseOfCode demo took up the majority of the day on Thursday, the students’ Friday schedule was clear… that is until Congressman Smith invited them to visit his office in the Rayburn Building. The congressman didn’t let a busy day of legislative duties stand in the way of spending time with his favorite young programmers and Mr. Gattuso.
After briefly speaking with the students, Congressman Smith’s staff was ushering him to the floor of the Capitol where congress would be voting on No Abducted Child Left Behind: An Update to the Goldman Act, legislation co-authored by Congressman Smith. Though Mr. Gattuso and his students were prepared to part ways with the congressman, Smith wouldn’t hear of it, instead inviting the group to be his guests at the Capitol Building. What followed was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Gattuso and his students.
“We entered a subterranean tunnel system, traveling through numerous security checkpoints before being led to a mini high speed subway system, which got us the floor of the Capitol Building in seconds flat,” said Mr. Gattuso. “ Overall, he spent about 40 minutes with us before we had to part ways due to a group of Catholic Bishops from South America who were waiting for him back at his office.”
Congressman Smith wasn’t done with the group, however, assigning one of his aides to take them on a backstage tour of Capitol Hill that included a visit to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s private quarters, where they were able to pose for pictures on Speaker Ryan’s private balcony overlooking the National Mall.
In addition to facilitating these incredible experiences, Congressman Smith has more in store for Mr. Gattuso and his students.
“While in the House of Representatives, Congressman Smith was preparing for the coming week when he came up with the idea of giving a speech on the Capitol floor about some of the programming projects,” said Mr. Gattuso. “The speech will be broadcast on C-SPAN.”
Besides the public promotion of Mr. Gattuso and his students, Congressman Smith is also working behind the scenes on behalf of the class by helping to establish relationships with tech companies that have set up shop in the former Bell Labs facility in Holmdel. The congressman has even drafted a letter to Ivanka Trump – a proponent of STEM education – inviting her to see the class in action!
“He’s really making every effort to talk up the class behind the scenes,” Mr. Gattuso said. “We are so grateful for Congressman Smith’s support and encouragement.”
That gratitude works both ways. Citing his work as chair for six distinct caucuses for children with disabilities as well as his wife’s background as a special education teacher, Congressman Smith has pledged his appreciation and admiration for the work Mr. Gattuso and his students are doing.
“Mr. Gattuso provides his students with diverse opportunities to learn valuable programming and back end design skills while helping their fellow students and the community and simultaneously earning opportunities for recognition and acclaim,” said Superintendent of Schools Vincent S. Smith. “These opportunities have not only better prepared our students for the technological demands that await them at college and in careers and have provided them with increased opportunities to achieve success but also helped to make them more compassionate in their programming efforts.
“Mr. Gattuso and his students have had an outstanding impact on the culture of inclusivity and acceptance in Point Pleasant Borough High School,” he said. “I am thrilled that they have captured the attention of Congressman Smith and several of his colleagues on Capitol Hill and incredibly proud that as a result of this relationship, our students have become an example of kindness and compassion for students around the country. I’m looking forward to witnessing where this partnership between Congressman Smith and Mr. Gattuso and his students leads.”