Kent Co. students named finalists in national competition

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- A group of high school students from across West Michigan are in the national spotlight for an virtual reality app they designed that is changing the way kids with autism can learn in the classroom.

Students from Kent Career Tech Center in Grand Rapids have been named one of ten finalists in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest . The goal of the competition is to find a new way for teachers and families to incorporate science, technology, engineering arts and math in the class and their community.

Students from high schools across Kent County teamed up to develop an app meant to build social skills for people with autism and how to solve real-world problems.

"The students are using 3D animation and 3D software, game development software to create story boards and animations and virtual reality experiences to help students with autism to be better communicators and to improve their behavioral skills so they can successful in the classroom and outside the classroom as well," said Marc Petz who teaches the class.

The students focused on autism as it is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the U.S.

"I know for a fact that if we can out from this school and into other schools it will definitely help the students who have autism because it is a solution that can lead to more solutions to other things, so I really hope we get a chance to get this idea out there," said student Lissette Gascha.

Students created different variations of the app to accommodate students with different learning styles.

We spoke with the school’s principal who says the students involvement is something personal for him, even testing the app on his own son with autism.

“I have learned a ton about the difficulties and challenges they have and social interaction and anxieties and other things that you and I may not encounter because their brain works differently and so this tool being a virtual reality tool that simulates an environment as a safe way to experience a conversation or perhaps something that may be anxiety provoking," said principal John Kraus, Kent Tech Career Center.

"We try to help students find their confidence and their place and their talents here but on the other side for those that it has benefiting for the personal standpoint if there is tools out there for a person like my son to be able to better cope in the middle school or high school situation, I think it has the potential to reduce bullying," Kraus said.

As a national finalist, the school will receive $50,000 in new technology and get a chance to show their app off at a competition next month in New York. That is where judges will pick the final three schools to win the grand prize of $150,000.

"It is a really great opportunity for us kind of give back to a society that we kind of take for granted because so many of us are..you know we are little bit of nerds that's why we are in this class but socially we really don't have that many problems and maybe a student with autism or maybe somebody that is just coming back from being incarcerated for a long amount of time those are some things we could help with," said student Ashton Charron.

A fourth school will also be given the community choice award and take home an additional $15,000 in technology which is determined by online voting. You can cast your vote here.

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