Regional winners of the Verizon Innovative App Challenge, from left to right: Olivia Reiskin, Lili Platt, Lily Carleu, Amelia Allen, Sarah Sinnott and Amelia Tarno. Photo: Tracy Brannstrom

A group of six eighth-grade students at Harwood Union Middle School has won a regional award for the Verizon Innovative App Challenge — a contest in which middle-schoolers work collaboratively to design a concept for a Web application, otherwise known as an “app.”

Lily Carleu, Amelia Allen, Lili Platt, Olivia Reiskin, Amelia Tarno and Sarah Sinnott were awarded the statewide prize for their app idea called Loalas Engineering, bringing a $5,000 award to Harwood’s STEM program, as well as receiving mobile tablets and other prizes.

Their submission — a three-minute video and four-part essay — was evaluated by a panel of judges for quality of research and creativity of presentation. Students were asked to design an app that speaks to a relevant problem in the students’ communities.

Harwood co-principal Amy Rex said that their win was exciting because the school’s science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) program is in its first year and because the team is composed of girls — an under-represented group in STEM fields.

The group began brainstorming their concept in October while enrolled in a technology education course with teacher Ryan Bushey, who prompted students to either build a model bridge or design an app for a course assignment.

“It was kind of intimidating at first,” said Lili Platt, as so many apps already exist. The group members deliberated on a list of problems faced by the Harwood community and considered concepts based on eating disorders, bullying and childhood obesity. They then researched whether apps already existed for these topics.

Bushey showed the group a commercial for the brand GoldiBlox in which girls are shown playing with a structure inspired by the artist and engineer Rube Goldberg. This idea incited the group to develop a series of games that would get more young girls interested in building and engineering.

“There are so many types of media that encourage girls to go into stereotypical roles,” Platt said — with games and activities geared toward fashion, cosmetics and teaching. The group visited a toy store and noticed that building and engineering were always tasks designed for boys, whereas princesses and castles seem to go hand in hand with the female gender, Amelia Tarno explained.

“Women are strong and tough too,” added Olivia Reiskin, “and they are capable of doing what our culture has deemed appropriate only for boys and men.” But it’s not only that women can do what men do; Carleu said that women can bring a fresh, new point of view to any project — that they “widen the field of options and ideas.”

The group acknowledges that “you cannot always generalize” with gender — rather “it depends on how you’re brought up.” The contest brought them to think about how gender stereotypes are often learned rather than innately programmed in individuals.

As a research component of the project, the group surveyed people on the streets of Montpelier, asking what percentage of the engineering field people thought was female, to which those surveyed responded 30 to 50 percent. The actual figure is closer to 14 percent, the group said.

With their app, they also wanted to show, through games, that “there are so many types of engineering — it’s not just about building.” Several of the group members are excited about the array of careers available within STEM fields.

Platt said that the expansion of technology fields is “amazing and overwhelming,” and Tarno added that while there are some downsides to the bombardment of digital technologies these days — “it takes away from human interaction” — there are many upsides as well.

Although the group has already snatched the regional prize, they can still win Fan Favorite if the community texts “Loala2” to 22333. Find more information about voting here: