WWDC: How Apple's Swift Student Challenge winners are fighting coronavirus

When the novelĀ coronavirus made its way to the US in March, leaving doctors and nurses without necessary medical supplies, a hospital in Houston got help from an unlikely source: A 17-year-old technologist and Apple Swift Student Challenge winner named Ethan Saadia.

For students, Apple's WWDC Scholars program -- awarded annually to 350 students based on a Swift Playground project -- is a chance to receive free admission to the Worldwide Developers Conference and spend time with Apple experts. With the conference going virtual this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Apple launched the Swift Student Challenge as a way to connect with young developers -- even if there's no in-person conference. This year, the 350 winners are from 41 different countries and regions.

Saadia, an incoming senior at Saint John's School in Houston, already has more apps under his belt than many college students. His Mav App, which helps students and teachers at his school keep track of their rotating schedules at his school, hit more than one million uses this year. Another app called Pi AR teaches you how to create a circuit on a Raspberry Pi, with the pieces appearing as though they're floating around you. His educational AR app called Color Pop AR won him a spot at the conference as a WWDC Scholar last year as well.

This year, for the Swift Student Challenge, Saadia built an introduction to machine learning.

In March, a local makerspace asked Saadia if he could help produce protective face shields for medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients. He used a 3D printer to print more than 140 bands for the shields. Word got around, and he started getting emails from doctors asking if he could print full face shields. Saadia sourced some plastic sheets and found a local shop with a laser cutter that agreed to help. He's since shipped out more than 70 Apple-designed Face Shields to doctors.

Saadia advises those interested in coding to choose a passion project and just start building. "You don't have to worry about learning to code or mastering a language like Swift, because learning by doing is the best way to learn," Saadia said. "And what you build can have a real impact on the world."

Besides making face shields, Saadia also created an AR version of an Apple Store for people to shop in during the pandemic. He's now working on an app to aid in curbside pickup, streamlining the process and making communication between people and stores easier.

The kids are alright

Swift Coding Challenge's youngest winner is Adrit Rao, a 12-year-old developer and incoming eighth grader from Palo Alto, California. He started learning MIT's game coding program Scratch in the third grade during lunch with his friends, and by fifth grade had moved on to Python.

When COVID-19 hit, Rao started researching the next programming language he wanted to learn. "Technology all around the world is helping a lot of people and I wanted to help too," Rao said. "I did a lot of research on a coding language that I could learn that could reach and help many people. The first thing that I thought of was the iPhone."

Using YouTube tutorials, Rao taught himself Swift and Xcode, and began making simple apps like a calculator and a to-do list. After that, he moved on to creating an app called ShopQuik, which uses crowdsourced data to give people the current wait time at their local grocery stores. This helps them avoid the crowds and stay safe during the pandemic.

ShopQuik was rejected by the App Store App Review process, because it's coronavirus-related, but not published by a recognized government or health official account. Now, Rao is working with the city of Palo Alto to potentially publish the app with official support.

"Technology is solving several issues that are faced by our society," Rao said. "Young people should learn how to code and develop things because not only will it teach them critical thinking but it will also help many people."

Surviving an epidemic and helping others

Palash Taneja, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, is no stranger to a pandemic: When he was in high school, he was infected in a dengue epidemic in his home city of New Delhi, India. Stuck in a bed for two months watching the city's infrastructure break down motivated him to learn to code to try to create a better model to predict the fever's spread.

For his Swift Student Challenge project, Taneja submitted a pandemic simulator, an educational tool that helps people understand the impact of their actions and learn about how practices such as wearing masks and social distancing affect the spread of a pandemic.

The pandemic simulator wasn't Taneja's only project: Two years ago, while working at an underfunded school in India, he developed an app that translates the audio from free online educational resources like Khan Academy into other languages, so more students worldwide can benefit.

"Something that has helped me create a difference is to look around and observe the biggest challenges in my life and in the lives of people around me," Taneja said. "It makes sure that I am passionate about my idea and it helps me have a test audience immediately."

Solving other problems in society

Swift Student Challenge winners' projects are focused on societal issues outside of the pandemic as well. Sofia Ongele, a 19-year-old developer and incoming junior at Fordham University, first got interested in coding through Kode with Klossy, a summer program for teenage girls.

"In two weeks we were able to learn the basics of software engineering and I immediately became obsessed -- it was really surreal to be able to see the way I could use code to creatively problem solve and build virtually anything I wanted," Ongele said.

For part of her Swift Student Challenge project, Ongele developed a mobile app called ReDawn, which connects survivors of sexual violence to information, resources and reporting tools.

Outside of the challenge, Ongele recently created a web app called theavalanche.app, which helps people email representatives and authorities voicing their opinions on a number of issues. She's also working with some of her fellow Kode with Klossy scholars on an app that encourages voter participation for Gen Z.

"Necessity is the mother of invention, and given that our world is becoming increasingly dependent on technology, we need diversity of thought and background if we want to see a world with technology that serves everyone," Ongele said. "This means getting more girls into tech, more LGBTQ+Ā folks into tech, more people of color into tech, more disabled people into tech."

Kode with Klossy emphasizes to participants that coding is a superpower, Ongele said. Even though it may seem like an overstatement at first, when you really think about it, "[coding] truly puts you in a unique position," she added. "You can create literally anything you want and help an innumerable population with sheer willpower and the ability to code."

You can read about more winning Swift Student Challenge projects on Apple's website. If you'd like to learn to code, you can check out these online courses for beginners.