January 08, 2020

Peak to Peak student wins Colorado 2nd Congressional District app challenge

Andrew Woen, a junior at Lafayette’s Peak to Peak Charter School, started working on a recycling app as a response to his fear of climate change.

His app recently won the Congressional App Challenge for Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District. Called “ReDetect,” it tells users what items can be recycled through image recognition and machine learning.

“I know that it will take a lot more than a recycling app to combat (climate change), but I believe that any contribution against climate change is better than no contribution,” he said.  “It’s important that we don’t give up fighting climate change, even though sometimes we feel powerless.”

The challenge, which ran September through Nov. 1, gave high schoolers the opportunity to create a unique app and learn new coding skills. In October, Congressman Joe Neguse, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, was part of an “app-a-thon” coding day at Google during which participants could learn from experts and access computers to participate in the challenge.

“It is incredibly inspiring to see young people across the district leveraging their ingenuity and entrepreneurship to better the planet,” Neguse said in a written statement. “Andrew’s app shows off his incredible coding skills and seeks to meet a need in our communities and across the globe.”

Woen said he was already working on a recycling app when he heard about the contest and decided to enter. His favorite feature of the app, he said, is how easy it is to use.

To use the app, he said, “you simply put an object in front of the device’s camera, and the application will box off the items that are recyclable. It can recognize plastic water bottles, aluminum cans, steel cans, milk jugs, glass bottles and much more.”

He said he focused on recycling because making products from recycled materials uses less energy and reduces pollution, noting making an aluminum can from recycled material uses 95% less energy than making the same can from raw materials.

At the same time, he said, recycling isn’t generally profitable here since China stopped taking recyclables from the United States — a problem compounded by the cost to remove all the non-recyclable items that end up in recycling bins.

“The recycling app attempts to prevent non-recyclable items from getting into recycling bins,” he said.

Peak to Peak math teacher Jacob Lehr said Woen often takes the initiative to teach himself new math topics and encouraged students in his Differential Equations calculus class to use the app to test its effectiveness.

“He is intuitive, ridiculously quick to learn new ideas and he loves making connections to other areas like computer science and physics,” Lehr said. “He is an amazing student.”

Woen, who is also taking AP chemistry and AP physics and is a teaching assistant in an introductory programming class, said he had some coding experience, but building an app “was a whole new challenge.”

He said he studied machine learning and computer vision, read articles and watched tutorials before working on the coding.

“There were many setbacks and frustrations,” he said. “I had to constantly scrap code because things wouldn’t work the way I wanted them to. But honestly, where’s the fun without some failure?”

Going forward, he said, he wants to make the app available in the app store and improve it by making it location based.

“Not every recycling center accepts the same items,” he said. “Depending on where you are, the app will show the set of items that can be recycled.”

Beyond the app, he’s thought about working with robotic arms to automate throwing out non-recyclable items at recycling centers.

“But then again, I am also worried about the effects of over-automation on employment,” he said. “So, I’ve kept that idea on hold.”

By:  Amy Bounds
Source: Boulder Daily Camera