LAS CRUCES — A self-taught middle schooler has won the 2021 Congressional App Challenge for District 2 in New Mexico, receiving national recognition for his programming.
Andrew To, a 13-year-old eighth year pupil at White Sands School, said he couldn’t believe it when he found out he had won.
“I felt very surprised because I was actually competing against high school kids, high school kids (who) had more experience, more time,” Andrew said. “Finding out that I won, I was actually happy.”
The Congressional App Challenge challenges middle and high school students to submit apps they’ve created. Normally, each winner from all 340 congressional districts would travel to Washington, DC, to present their application to the United States House of Representatives, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was not possible. All winners and their applications will be posted on the www.congressionalappchallenge.us site.
From 2016 to 2020, more than 14,000 students participated in the challenge, according to the webpage. In 2021, 2,101 fully functional applications were submitted by the 7,000 registered participants.
Andrew’s app is “New Mexico for Dummies” and includes four sections of information about the Land of Enchantment – important people, places, food, nature and wildlife. The app also features two games: tic-tac-toe using the state flag and maps and a matching game.
Andrew said he had several ideas for what app to build before deciding on “New Mexico for Dummies.” He first entered the competition in late May and submitted the final product in October 2021.
“I thought about what kind of app would bring out the best of New Mexico or what kind of app would be really fun for people to learn about New Mexico,” Andrew said of his idea.
U.S. Representative Yvette Herrell, RN.M., sent a letter to Andrew, informing him of his victory.
“Your app highlights the best parts of New Mexico, and I’m glad you chose our state and home to promote,” Herrell wrote.
Grow and code
Andrew started teaching himself to code at the start of the pandemic, about two years ago.
“I started learning coding because I wanted to impress my friends and family, and I wanted to do something on my own where I could be the best in my family,” Andrew said. “I think coding was something I could have excelled in. I got into it when I started learning about it on YouTube.”
Now Andrew has his own YouTube channel where he documents his programming.
Andrew’s father, Youngchan To, was surprised and proud to learn that his son had won the competition.
Youngchan said he found out about the contest through a colleague. Because Andrew had learned programming in his spare time, Youngchan suggested his son come in.
“What’s special about him is that he’s a middle schooler,” Youngchan said. “Most of the winners are high schoolers and Andrew is only 13. Very exciting news for Las Cruces. All the kids should be very excited.”
Inspire other young coders
Andrew said he shared the news with some of his friends at school, and some of them are also interested in trying coding.
“I was surprised at first that I was able to win. Because I saw the other apps that I reviewed among the past winners of other apps, and they made some really good apps. I don’t think not that I could create now. But being able to win as a younger student, I think I really put a bridge or a street, allowing other people to believe that they could also win against high schools.”
Since Andrew started learning about app building in early 2020, he said he’s created seven or eight apps on his own. He even created one for his school, the White Sands Quiz app, which earned him school-wide recognition. The app includes a series of quizzes that ask the user to answer questions about White Sands School.
Andrew said these questions range from knowing different teachers to how many substitutes are paid or who has won a specific competition in the last few years. Andrew received a lot of good feedback from the principal, teachers and other students, he said, which motivated him to keep coding.
“He’s a hard worker all the time,” White Sands manager James Dickerson said. “You can see he built things from the ground up with this app. It’s great to know Andrew.”
At White Sands, Andrew is enrolled in a coding course that only started last year.
Andrew said the class also got more kids interested in programming, whether as a hobby or a future career. He said he has been able to work with 3D programs like Tinkercad and uses the school’s 3D printer to bring projects to life.
Vice-Principal Jim Miller said the class gave students like Andrew the opportunity to delve into those interests.
“Especially here at White Sands, the kids are into it (coding) and they love doing it,” Miller said. “The kids in upper grade who love Andrew just want to open his mind and get a good job.
“It worked really well with the kids.”
Miller said he was impressed with Andrew and his victory was well deserved.
Andrew said he wants to keep building more apps and developing his talents.
“I want to become a computer programmer and create a program that can help my community,” Andrew said of his future career. “I can be proud of that.”
For now, Andrew works with Unity, a program that creates 2D and 3D games. He hopes to create ad-free apps that his sister and other kids can enjoy.
“New Mexico For Dummies” is available to download from the Google Play Store.
Andrew and the other 339 Congressional App Challenge winners will be invited to the virtual #HouseOfCode event in April. The student application showcase will take place on April 22.