LAS CRUCES – A self-trained middle-schooler has won the 2021 Congressional App Challenge for New Mexico District 2, receiving national recognition for his programming.
Andrew To, a 13-year-old eighth-grade student at White Sands School, said he couldn’t believe it when he found out he won.
“I felt very surprised because I was actually competing against high schoolers, high schoolers (who) had more experience, more time,” Andrew said. “Finding out that I won, I was actually happy.”
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The Congressional App Challenge challenges middle and high school students to submit apps they’ve created. Normally, each winner from the 340 congressional districts would travel to Washington, D.C., to present their app to the U.S. House of Representatives, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that hasn’t been possible. All winners and their apps will be displayed on the www.congressionalappchallenge.us site.
From 2016 to 2020, over 14,000 students participated in the challenge, according to the webpage. In 2021, there were 2,101 fully-functioning apps submitted from the 7,000 registered participants.
Andrew’s app is “New Mexico for Dummies” and includes four informational sections about the Land of Enchantment — important people, places, food and nature and wildlife. The app also has two games: tic-tac-toe using the state flag and maps and a matching game.
Andrew said he had several ideas about what app to make before deciding on “New Mexico for Dummies.” He first entered the contest in late May and submitted the final product in October 2021.
“I thought about what kind of app could 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 about his idea.
U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., sent a letter to Andrew, letting him know about his win.
“Your app highlights the best parts of New Mexico, and I am happy that you chose our state and home to promote,” Herrell wrote.
Growing and coding
Andrew began teaching himself how to code early on in the pandemic, about two years ago.
“I started learning coding because I wanted to impress my friends and my family, and I wanted to make something on my own that I can be the best at in my family,” Andrew said. “I feel that coding was one that I could have excelled at. I got very interested in it when I started learning 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 find out about his son winning the contest.
Youngchan said he found out about the competition through a coworker. Because Andrew had been learning programming in his free time, Youngchan suggested his son enter.
“What’s special about this is he’s a middle school kid,” Youngchan said. “Most of the winners are high school kids and Andrew is only 13. Very exciting news for Las Cruces. All the kids should be very excited.”
Inspiring other young coders
Andrew said he’s shared the news with some of his friends at school, and some of them are interested in trying out coding as well.
“I was first surprised I was able to win. Because I seen the other apps that I looked through the past winners of other apps, and they made really good apps. I don’t think I could create right now. But being able to win as a younger student, I think I really put a bridge or street, allowing other people believing that they could win as well against high schools.”
Since Andrew began learning about app-making in early 2020, he said he has made seven or eight apps on his own. He even made one for his school, the White Sands Quiz App, which earned him schoolwide 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 much substitutes are paid or who won a specific competition in past years. Andrew got a lot of great feedback from the principal, teachers and fellow students, he said, which motivated him to keep coding.
“He’s a hard worker all the time,” said White Sands Principal James Dickerson. “You can see that he built things from the ground up with this app. I’m excited to know Andrew.”
At White Sands, Andrew is enrolled in a coding class that started up only this past year.
Andrew said that the class has also gotten more kids interested in programing, either as a hobby or a future career. He said he’s been able to work with 3D programs like Tinkercad and uses the school’s 3D printer to bring projects to life.
Assistant Principal Jim Miller said that the class has given opportunities to students like Andrew to delve into these interests.
“Especially out here at White Sands, kids get interested in it (coding), and they like to do that,” Miller said. “The higher-ed kids that like Andrew just want to open his mind and get a good job.
“It’s worked out real well with the kids.”
Miller said he was impressed by Andrew and that his win was well-deserved.
Andrew said he wants to continue making more apps and pushing his talents.
“I want to become a computer programmer, and create a program that can help my community,” Andrew said about 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 make apps without ads that his sister and other kids can enjoy.
“New Mexico for Dummies” is available for download in the Google Play Store.
Andrew and the other 339 Congressional App Challenge winners will be invited to the #HouseOfCode virtual event in April. The student app showcase will be held on April 22.