When it comes to coding, Gen Z is proving itself a force to be reckoned with. This week at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference, app developers the world over descended on San Jose, CA, armed with fresh apps and ideas for a series of labs, talks, and consultations with Apple experts, and we got to talk to three such developers — all of whom are 18 or younger. Below, meet three teen WWDC scholarship winners shaking up the coding space with totally unique apps of their own design.
Ariana Sokolov, the 18-year-old who co-created Trill Project, an app that promotes mental health awareness amongst LGBTQ+ teens, when she was 16. (Also, she got a Twitter shoutout from Apple CEO Tim Cook earlier this week, NBD.)
When Sokolov was a junior in high school, the Girls Who Code club at her school challenged its members to create apps that solved social problems within their community. At the time, her friend from class had just talked to her about how difficult it had been for her to come out as bisexual, so Sokolov sought out the Gay Straight Alliance club at school, where she spoke to more LGBTQ+ students about their struggles coming out.
“We found that there were a lot of mental health problems associated with not being able to freely express yourself if you're not being supported by your community. And we also found out that statistically 40% of transgender people worldwide attempt suicide — it’s a major issue in the LGBTQ+ community. So we sent out a Tumblr poll asking: “What would you say if nobody knew you were saying it, and what do you like or dislike about existing social media?" We found that there was a real need for a place for LGBTQ+ teens to be themselves and connect with others.”
From here, Trill was born, and the app got about 10,000 sign ups within its first two weeks. Now, it has about 50,000 downloads internationally in 41 countries. As for what’s next, Sokolov says it’s a campus ambassador program where Trill’s mental health awareness ethos can be spread IRL, across school campuses.
After accidentally stumbling into a computer science class when she was just 8 years old (it was supposed to be photography), Sokolovquickly became hooked on coding. She started by creating websites, and then published her first app at age 13 Since then, she’s attended four WWDCs, which she credits with giving her the tools to make her ideas come to life.
“Last year we worked a little bit with Create ML, a software that allows you to create machine learning models, and we trained some of Trill's posts that were suicidal in nature or indicated that a user was hurting themselves or that someone was hurting them so that they could have quicker moderator attention. And that was super effective. This WWDC, I’m looking to talk to the engineers about how we can refine the model to make sure that it targets the most urgent cases, so the ones that need the most help get attention the fastest.”
Tanvi Khot, the 17-year-old who created Aegis, a buddy system app to keep women safe on college campuses.
Given the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, and the fact that she is going to be a senior in high school next year, Khot wanted to create an app that could help women on university campuses get from point A to point B more safely.
“It's called Aegis, for Athena's shield. I’m really passionate about women empowerment, and this is one of the first apps I created. I’m really happy with how it ended up.”
Khot frequently goes to hackathons, where coders have 12 to 24 hours to create a project and then present it to judges. She created Aegis at an all-women hackathon in January, and her dream is to integrate it with college campus networks nationwide, so that each has its own personalized map.
She got started with coding her freshman year of high school with Scratch, a visual, simplified coding language, which merged her two passions — math and design. She had noticed that there was a huge discrepancy between the amount of women in STEM versus the amount of men, and since then, has made it her goal to change this. Now, she leads her own women-only hackathon and a teen-only hackathon with her city council (she grew up practically next door to Apple’s HQ in Cupertino, CA). This is her first WWDC.
“A big reason as to why there aren’t a lot of women in STEM is it’s a cycle — they see they’re alone in the field and then they just give up. But a way to get past this is just to keep on going, even if you’re the only woman in the room. And don’t think about what others think about you.”
Anne Li, the 16-year-old who co-founded Allgirlithm, a tech organization dedicated to getting more women and girls involved with computer science.
Li first got into coding after she and two friends built a medical helper desktop app for a national all girls computer science competition. And then, during the summer after ninth grade, she attended an AI summer program at Stanford, where she met two other students with whom she founded Allgirlithm. The organization develops AI club and workshop curriculum materials and works with other tech organizations to promote their initiatives, and over the past two years, has expanded to 15 U.S. states and five countries outside the U.S.
In order to balance the demands of high school with Allgirlithm, Li usually spends one or two hours outside of school working on her own personal projects every day — including apps of her own.
She recently published her first ever app to the app store, foodE Helper, which lists ingredients used to make a dish by analyzing a photo of the dish with machine learning frameworks. She also has another app on the pipeline that takes a geographical location as the input and displays the best route to the location, so it can help people plan their travels who want to plan around a set of landmarks.
“Getting hands on experience is a really important thing, and it helps you see what you can build. But also, being part of a supportive community of peers and establishing relationships with good mentors are also very helpful. A lot of the people I regularly consult for advice or collaborate with nowadays are people I met from various girls in tech types of events or programs. So being a part of that community has been one of the most important aspects of my experience in computer science.”