Montana High School 3D Imaging App Wins National Award

Helena students to work with MIT on building groundbreaking smartphone app.

By on March 31, 2014

When the chief of the Helena Fire Department needed a smartphone app, he didn’t pull up the iOS App Store or even the Google Play Store. He called students at a local high school.      

“The fire department wanted a special app to use on their phones,” said Sage Smith, senior at Helena High School. “The app would track when a fire truck left the station, when it reached a fire, and how long it stayed on scene.”

That was in 2013, and the Fire Fighter Response Time App that Smith and his peers at Helena High School developed took “Best in State” honors in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. The challenge encourages middle and high school students to apply their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) knowledge to develop a mobile app concept that addresses challenges in their schools or communities.

But in 2014, they knew they could do better.

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This year Smith helped lead Helena High School’s team in the 2014 Verizon App Challenge win “Best in Nation,” beating out more than 1,300 teams from across the country to become one of eight national winners.

The team created a groundbreaking app from scratch. Typically, sophisticated software and high-powered computers are used to create 3D images, but the team’s Exact 3D Extract App uses a cellphone’s camera to create a digital three-dimensional image of an object.

“When you start the app, it shows you what your camera is seeing,” said Joe Whitney, senior at Helena High School. “You push the button and the app instructs you to walk around an object to capture all of the object’s dimensions. Once an image is created in the app, you can put the measurements into a 3D printer, or upload the object into a video game.”

“We came up with the idea because we’re all programmers, said Nick Burkland, senior at Helena High School. “And two of us like to make robots, so it’s cool to create models.”

“The challenge is good because it allows students to work through ideas that they have and is not based on what you can already do or program,” said Bridger Howell, senior at Helena High School.

At a ceremony for the school, leaders from the city and state came to celebrate the accomplishments of the Exact 3D Extract App team.

“It is rare that I can speak on behalf of all 28,000 residents, but in this case, I can, and with total confidence,” said James Smith, Mayor of Helena. “Everyone is proud of what you have accomplished.”

“This is truly a proud moment for the entire state of Montana,” said Governor Steve Bullock.

A coach from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will help the team turn its idea into a working app for Android devices. Helena High School’s Exact 3D Extract app will be the first of its kind in the Android market.

“Working with MIT is going to be great,” said Burkland. “It’s a pretty complicated problem that we have. In the couple minutes that we talked to MIT, they had some great ideas for us. We aren’t totally sure how it’s going to fit together but we’re hoping to get some guidance from [them].”  

With a majority of the Helena team planning to study computer science in college, that guidance will also prove invaluable to their future education.

In June, the team will present its finished app at the 2014 National Technology Student Association (TSA) Conference in Washington, D.C.

The team’s love of STEM has been fostered by their advisor, Buffy Smith. In addition to winning $20,000 for Helena High School as part of the Verizon Innovative App Challenge, Mrs. Smith also received a $600 Great Ideas Grant from the Helena Education Foundation for robotics in the classroom. Additionally, she was honored as one of the foundation’s 2014 Distinguished Educators for having a positive impact on students’ lives and education. 

Even though the App Challenge will take the team far from home, their influence is a constant presence back in the halls of Helena schools. “This win has made you all role models to every student,” said Kent Kultgen, superintendent of Helena Public Schools. “They now see what is possible with a great teacher and goals.”

And Mayor Smith has ideas for further apps the team could create to help alert citizens when snowplows are in their neighborhoods and when potholes need to be filled. “Citizens could take a photo of the pothole, and with GPS, we would know where it is located, and could dispatch asphalt trucks to fill it,” suggested Mayor Smith.

“There are tons of people with ideas for apps; you just need to look around for good ideas, and listen to other ideas from teachers and the community,” said Jake Pennington, junior at Helena High School.

This is the first in a series of articles that will spotlight the 2014 Innovative App Challenge Winners.

In addition to Helena High School, the other “Best in Nation” high schools include:

  • Bartlett High School – Bartlett, Ill.
  • Westford Academy – Westford, Mass.
  • North Hills Preparatory School – Irving, Texas

This year’s “Best in Nation” middle school winners include:

  • Cheney Middle School – West Fargo, N.D.
  • Jefferson Township Middle School – Oak Ridge, N.J.
  • Resaca Middle School – Los Fresnos, Texas

For the 2014-2015 Innovative App Challenge, teams of five to seven students and a faculty advisor from any public, private or parochial middle can enter from August 4 through November 14.

Tags: 2014 Innovative App Challenge Winners, Helena High School, 2014 Distinguished Educators, STEM education, Great Ideas Grant