Douglas County student wins Congressional App Challenge
Left: Etash Kalra with Congressman Ken Buck
CASTLE ROCK— Douglas County High School sophomore, Etash Kalra, noticed limitations with existing apps that allow a user to practice for spelling bees or tests. A previous middle school spelling bee champion and state finalist himself, he envisioned an app in which a user could add unlimited words to study lists and access definitions with one click without having to leave the app.
That vision materialized into “Spell Me!,” an app Etash designed last summer and recently earned him a place among just 123 winners from across the U.S., and one of just two winners in Colorado, in the Congressional App Challenge.
For a few days last week, Etash had the opportunity to fly to Washington, D.C. for a reception honoring the winners and meet with the other students, business leaders and tech industry leaders.
“It was exciting to see other students that were interested in computer science from all around the country. They had similar interests to mine, and it was really fun to talk with them and see what they’re doing in computer science,” Etash said.
As part of the visit, Etash and the other winners visited with representatives from Amazon, Microsoft, the American Library Association, the U.S. patent office to learn about patenting their apps, and tech-oriented government agencies like the NSA. He also had the opportunity to meet Congressman Ken Buck (CO-District 04), as well as several other members of Congress. Etash and the other students additionally were invited to pitch and present their apps to these representatives.
“We got to hear about their experiences and ask them questions like ‘what do you think helped you in your career?’ and ‘what do you believe are some of the biggest things for the future of technology and innovation?’ We got a lot of great advice,” he said.
“I’m so proud of Etash and all the students who participated in the Congressional App Challenge this year,” Congressman Buck stated. “STEM education is so important to our nation’s future, and I’m confident these student participants will play key roles in America’s success.”
Etash’s interest in computer science and coding began while he was still in middle school attending Challenge to Excellence Charter School (C2E) in Parker. The school, which emphasizes STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math), is one of several schools in Douglas County and across the nation that hold an Hour of Code event. It was this event that sparked his passion.
“I thought it was really cool that you could create whatever you wanted to,” he said.
Not long after that, Etash had the opportunity to learn about app development as part of Future Business Leaders of America. Although he practiced with a mock app, Spell Me! is truly his first deployable app. He did not expect the app to take off like it has. It’s currently available on the Apple App Store and to date has over 250 downloads.
“I did not think it would catch on too much, primarily because I wasn’t advertising it anywhere to be honest,” Etash said. “My brother has a lot of friends in middle school, and they all compete in the spelling bee. They downloaded it and they actually liked it and even suggested some improvements I could make. I’m working on some now to make the app better.”
Etash sees the app as a tool both teachers and students can use, for any age or skill level.
“Teachers can add lists and then share it with others. So if they have a class of twenty students, whether in eighth grade or third grade, a teacher can create a list based on the skill level of the students and then share it with them,” he explained.
It wasn’t until after he developed Spell Me! that he discovered the opportunity to enter the Congressional App Challenge. He hopes more Douglas County students will participate in next year’s App Challenge. Etash also is grateful for his exposure to coding, and emphasized that he would like to see more students of all ages getting involved in coding.
“I’m so glad I learned it because even if I don’t go into a coding job, I still have that aspect of how I can use technology in a business, because I’d really like to open my own business. If it’s a tech startup, then having that background in coding is obviously really important. I think that coding is a great problem solving tool,” he said.
Etash additionally is holding sessions at the Parker Library teaching kids how to code in hopes to exponentially expand this knowledge among Douglas County youth.
“I’m hopefully going to get a group of other students together so that high schoolers are teaching middle school and elementary students, so we can make coding a much bigger thing, so we can promote challenges like this and so students can get that hands on experience in what’s going to become the future,” he said. “Almost every job may be using coding in the future.”
WATCH: Etash explains his app, Spell Me!