Winner of the 2020 Congressional App Challenge
Being a student at the STEM Academy opened up more than just a new world in education for Michelle Nguyen. Attending the school on the Martin High School campus also served as the inspiration for an award-winning app designed by the 16-year-old junior.
The light-bulb moment was born from Nguyen’s interactions with classmates at STEM Academy from all over the city.
“I realized that even though we all lived in Arlington and went to Arlington public schools, our experiences and the environments we were surrounded by were different,” Nguyen said.
Bridging those differences with the shared interests of students from across Arlington ISD led Nguyen to design “Clava.” The app connects people to others with similar likes, regardless of where they live and what school they attend.
“For example, the computer science scene at Martin is stronger than most other high schools, so someone interested in CS at another school would have a harder time finding peers with that same interest,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to help lessen those differences and provide a way for students to connect in a meaningful way. After all, doing something you like with other people helps keep you motivated.”
Motivation has not been an issue for Nguyen. She’s taken part in computer science competitions since her freshman year. STEM Academy/Martin teacher James Hovey coached Nguyen in those contests, and has been her advanced computer science instructor the past two years.
“More so than any student I’ve had before, Michelle loves to compete,” Hovey said. “These competitions require and teach skills far beyond what we learn in class. She competes in coding competitions, many different web design competitions, app development and a variety of cybersecurity competitions.”
Clava earned Nguyen national recognition, with the late Rep. Ron Wright naming her as the winner of the 2020 Congressional App Challenge. More than 6,500 students registered for the 2020 Congressional App Challenge, submitting 3,088 functioning apps amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea of Clava immediately connected with Hovey.
“I remember when she thought of the idea, and I loved it immediately,” he said. “I appreciate all the activities and clubs that my students participate in, and we’d realized that many of them were things that only our school did. I know how much knowledge, fun and benefit students gain from these activities, and how many other students even locally were not getting the same opportunities.”
It’s safe to say that Nguyen has made an impression over the years. STEM Academy coordinator Marianne Varner taught Nguyen in freshman geometry, and they’ve worked together ever since.
“She is an outstanding student,” Varner said. “She is currently a junior, and taking courses at both Martin and UTA. She is very organized and on top of things, and yet she relates well to both peers and teachers.”
The STEM Academy had its first freshman class fall of 2015. The application program is open to entering 9th graders from across the Arlington ISD and private/charter schools. Currently, the Academy has 535 students who are cohorted in their pathways and core classes. As juniors, they can start taking dual credit classes at UTA in STEM courses such as engineering, computer science, mathematics, psychology, chemistry and biology, along with some basic college classes.
The Academy has graduated two classes so far 2019 and 2020, with 98 percent of graduates attending four-year college programs. Among the universities attended by Academy alums are MIT, Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame, Rice, Texas A&M, Texas and UTA.
“Our students are very well prepared to stay in college programs,” Varner said. “Our motto that we share with the kids is ‘Dream big, be bold.’”
Nguyen also plays tennis for Martin, is a peer mentor for STEM Academy freshmen, founded the Girls Who Code club and president of the Key Club. And her Nguyen’s cleverness isn’t confined to just coding. Clava is Latin for “club.”
She’s certainly made the most of her of team at STEM Academy.
“After being in the STEM Academy for nearly three years now, I can definitively say that it one of the best choices I could have made,” she said. “For one, it’s allowed me to meet people who have pushed me to become a better person and challenge me every day. I feel like I have made lifelong friends with people in STEM who I would have otherwise never met.
“STEM has also provided me with so many opportunities such as allowing me to participate in various coding competitions, taking me on trips to places like NASA, and giving me the ability to take UTA classes as a high school student.”