HOPE — It’s the ultimate underdog story.

A group of students from a small Midwestern town wins a statewide contest and has the chance to step into the national spotlight.

But these eighth-grade students from Hauser Junior-Senior High School never thought they would actually win Verizon’s App Challenge.

When they submitted their idea for Speak Bot Pro, an app concept that uses various communication techniques to help speech-impaired people, the students expected to be beat out by one of the 1,200 other entries.

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“We’re a small school, so I didn’t think we’d have a chance,” eighth-grader Chloe Kennedy said.

Hauser has 132 students in grades 7 and 8, and 271 in grades 9 through 12.

But not only did the Hauser students’ app idea win the best in state award for the Indiana middle school division, it is now eligible for the nationwide fan favorite award, which comes with a prize of $15,000 for the school.

“I was speechless,” eighth-grader Ethan Wallace said.

The Verizon App Challenge is an annual contest that allows teams of students in grades 6 to 12 to submit a concept for a new smartphone app. Speak Bot Pro was created by a team of seven students in Deb Gaff’s Project Lead the Way class at Hauser.

In addition to developing the concept, the students shot and edited a video about their idea and wrote essays explaining how the app would work.

If it were a working app, Speak Bot Pro would offer several different features, including text-to-voice and voice-to-text options, as well as icons that will voice a specific command when selected. The restroom icon, for example, can ask where the nearest restroom is, while the headphones icon can request to hear a song. In concept, the app would work with any language.

The students were inspired by their peers, who sometimes have trouble communicating with each other because of illnesses or language barriers.

“There are some kids in our school who aren’t able to speak properly, so we thought we would create something that help kids or adults who have a speech impediment,” Kaalob Schmidt said.

The team spent about three weeks in October developing the concept, completing the video and writing their essays. After that, Gaff and her students anxiously waited for Jan. 7, when the winners were announced.

“I knew it was a good idea,” Gaff said. “When I got the email saying we’d won, I ran to the classroom they were in.”

In addition to a plaque, the best in state award earned the school $5,000 to put toward its science, technology, engineering and math curriculum. The students also won their own personal tablets.

The next step on the road to national fame is the Fan Favorite competition. To win, fans of Hauser’s app must send in the most votes for Speak Bot Pro, which is up against ideas from students in cities such as much-bigger Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

If Speak Bot Pro wins, the Hauser students would get the chance to work with the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and develop their app from a concept to a functional product. The school would also win an additional $15,000 for STEM classes.

Speak Bot Pro would be a hot commodity on the market, especially among students with special needs or who are not native English speakers, Kennedy said.

The students are remaining cautiously optimistic about their chances of winning the fan favorite award, Gaff said.

Even if they don’t win, the science teacher said her students still will benefit from the experiences they gained in collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking — all skills that will help them as they embark on their future careers.

“They are using skills that employers will want,” Gaff said.

How the app would work

Text to speech

Users with language barriers or speech impediments could type their message into Speak Bot Pro, which would then translate it verbally in any language.

Speech to text

For those who cannot type a message, Speak Bot Pro could recognize and translate a verbal message into any language.


Selecting specific icons would utter a specific command. The hospital icon, for example, could ask for the location of the nearest hospital.

What’s at stake

The winning team — from among 1,200 competing — would get the chance to develop the app working the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, taking it from a concept to a functional product.

About the team

Under the direction of science and engineering teacher Deb Gaff, a group of seven eighth-grade students from Hauser Junior – Senior High School designed the concept for Speak Bot Pro. The students are:

  • Parker Eickbush
  • Chloe Kennedy
  • Kaalob Schmidt
  • Skylar Sharp
  • Derek Stenneski
  • Ethan Wallace
  • Caleb Wasson
  • Alternate: Dillon Garwood

Voting for fan favorite

To vote for Speak Bot Pro, a concept developed by Hauser eighth grade students, in the Verizon App Challenge fan favorite competition, text SPEAKBOT2 to 22333 by Jan. 31. The winner, which carries a $15,000 prize, will be announced Feb. 2.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.