Oswego High School student wins Congressional app contest

Jake Cirino, 16, of Oswego, recently won an app-building contest for his area sponsored by the U.S. House of Representatives. |  Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media
Jake Cirino, 16, of Oswego, recently won an app-building contest for his area sponsored by the U.S. House of Representatives. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

OSWEGO — When Jake Cirino woke up to find a message on his phone on a recent Thursday morning, he didn’t expect it to be from the U.S. House of Representatives.

Cirino, 16, who is going into his junior year at Oswego High School, was named one of the winners of the first Congressional App Challenge, which seeks to award high school students across the country for their computer programming talent. Cirino’s app, which shows how small amounts of human pollution can snowball over time to dangerous levels, won for U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren’s district.

The apps were judged by a panel of experts from places such as Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont and 1871, Chicago’s digital start-up hub.

“I really wanted to have an impact and a point to it,” Cirino said. “I wanted the general population to look at it and say ‘Jeez, such a small number can accumulate over time and we’re in danger if we don’t do something about it.’”

The app contest is part of a federal move to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and is modeled after the Congressional Art Competition, which began in 1982. Legislators hope the app contest will become as popular as the art competition over time and that eventually all congressional districts will participate.

This year, half of Illinois’ 18 House members held app contests, including Hultgren, Rep. Bill Foster and Rep. Peter Roskam. Roskam and Foster have yet to announce winners for their districts.

Cirino’s was one of five applications Hultgren’s office received, a number the office says isn’t too bad considering the contest is new and many schools have yet to designate a point of contact for the competition, as they do for the art contest.

The winning apps will be displayed on the House website and there may be a trip for Cirino and the other winners to Washington, D.C., in the future.

Cirino, who began teaching himself computer science at 12 by reading library books, heard about the contest in a computer programming class and decided to apply.

He used the programming language Java and an open-source library called Slick to create his app, which draws on data from the Environmental Protection Agency to show levels of air pollution and how it corresponds to population growth.

Cirino estimates he spent six or seven hours a day for three or four days after school in April to develop the app. That’s not unusual for Cirino, who says he recently stayed up a full day working on code.

“Sometimes I get really involved and I don’t want to stop,” he said.

Cirino’s already taken the two computer programming classes his high school offers and plans to now take classes in computer hardware — how to assemble computers and learn about their interior workings. He’s also going to take as much math as he can, he says, so he can possibly pursue computer programming as a career.

His next big project is already under way — he started a video game company with a group of six friends who are working to build a computer game and a website for it. The programmers, developers and web designers hail from all over the world: Sweden, Canada and Oswego. Cirino says the original goal was to have the product done by the end of the summer, but he’s not sure they’ll meet that deadline.

Either way, the team will likely release a functioning beta version soon and then continue to work to improve the game, which Cirino describes as an “open world” game of survival that infinitely expands and has zombies. It’s inspired by the popular game Minecraft, which was independently developed by a single Swedish programmer and has sold nearly 54 million copies.

“With the Internet you could have a 16-year-old kid selling video games,” Cirino said. “I feel right now with the industry, as far as gaming and software development (goes), I think it’s a perfect time to get into it.”

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  • Oswego High School student wins Congressional app contest – Aurora Beacon News | TAKE BACK THE MAJORITY

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