By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Beginning in her freshman year at Birmingham’s George Washington Carver High School, Ashley Pender, now a senior, liked to stay in the background. “I used to hide a lot,” she said.
Pender, who used to participate only in the school’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), Pender said she has since begun to branch out into the school’s book and chess clubs and helped work on an app which recently earned $10,000 through a competition put on by Altec Industries.
Pender, along with about 12 other students and the school’s Academy of Engineering teacher Justin Sanders, worked on the app called NeXsim, which seeks to break students out of their silos by pairing them through common interests and creating and engaging with various groups based on those interests.
NeXsim is a combination of the Latin words nex and sim means “connected together.”
Pender said she’s already seen the benefits of being more involved. “[I’ve started] coming out of my shell and being more comfortable and speaking to people…and it’s really just made me gain more confidence in myself,” Pender said.
The app also provides a calendar of events for various groups and allows people within groups to post upcoming events, as well as pictures and comments on past events.
While the idea of NeXsim was put together and pitched over the fall 2022 semester, Sanders said the plan is to have the software on the Apple App Store by the end of spring semester 2023.
The idea originally came together because the team identified both the lack of engagement in school activities and the trend of young Black males being involved in gun violence, said Ariyan Riggs, another senior who has worked on the project.
“We noticed that [a large percentage] of African American males get in violent crimes and stuff of that sort because they don’t have anything to do, and various political leaders across the country said the same thing,” Riggs said.
Rafael Avelino, another senior who has worked on the project, said younger people need “more things to do,” instead of being “distracted” by negative things like violence.
The surge in homicides has even taken a toll on the student body of Carver, which has lost four students to gun violence over just two years, the students said.
“I know it has affected the school a lot, and that’s why the app was important,” Avelino said.
For the Altec Innovation Challenge competition, the team put together a mock-up of what NeXsim will look like and presented their research, sourced from local news sources, research from experts on reducing violence, bhamwiki.com and their own student surveys, to a panel of judges, similar to the popular show “Shark Tank,” Avelino said.
Creating NeXsim has been a multidisciplinary process, including developing the idea, as well as graphic design and presentation skills. Though the project is mostly composed of students in the Academy of Engineering, Riggs, a student in the Health Sciences academy, was brought on for her previous engineering experience and rhetorical skills.
Moving forward, Avelino and Pender say they will focus on the actual programming process. Pender said her skills are more in writing and visual art and that programming is new for her.
“… that’s a big thing because I’m really new to a lot of stuff that we were covering,” Pender said.
“It’s a very new experience for me, and I can take that with me in the future, when I go to college, and even when I’m working for my career stuff, so I like that I’m able to experience this, especially since it’s something I’ve never done before,” she added.
Avelino, who said he is interested in a career in technology, just recently had his first experience writing code. “It was really complicated…but I think once you get the hang of it, it can become pretty simple,” Avelino said.
The school is partnering with Ed Farm, an Apple-backed technology education initiative in Birmingham. Throughout the next semester, Ed Farm will provide virtual programming sessions three to four times a week.
Riggs, who has previously experienced programming in languages like jQuery and Python, said she feels confident in the team’s ability to release NeXsim. “I am [confident] because it’s me, and we have a partner, as well, helping them through this process, and it’s also giving me the chance to get back to what I love doing,” Riggs said.
Additionally, engineering teacher Sanders said they are currently looking to recruit more members of the student body to work on the app and more adult mentors to be ready to sponsor groups when the app goes live.
For adults or students who are interested in being involved in the NeXsim app, visit https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfEMeSQGQf_cEYyWTsDBKkWfF2ffGU1MR73CKyLBJaGc3bVYA/viewform.
And for more information on NeXsim, visit https://sites.google.com/bhm.k12.al.us/nexsim/home.