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Portola Pilot

The student news site of Portola High School

Portola Pilot

The student news site of Portola High School

Portola Pilot

Seniors Terry You and Zonglin Zhang Help Teen Mental Health with Congressional App Challenge Winner ‘Ember’

U.S.+House+of+Representatives+member+Mike+Levin+%28CA-49%29+awards+seniors+Zonglin+Zhang+and+Terry+You+%28rightmost%29+for+their+app%2C+Ember%2C+which+aims+to+help+youth+feel+more+open+in+conversing+about+mental+health.+Although+Ember+is+still+being+refined+and+not+available+on+the+app+store+yet%2C+it+can+be+viewed+on+the+U.S.+House+of+Representatives%E2%80%99+website%2C+in+the+U.S.+Capitol+Building+or+requested+for+a+demonstration%2C+according+to+Zhang.
Courtesy of Terry You
U.S. House of Representatives member Mike Levin (CA-49) awards seniors Zonglin Zhang and Terry You (rightmost) for their app, Ember, which aims to help youth feel more open in conversing about mental health. Although Ember is still being refined and not available on the app store yet, it can be viewed on the U.S. House of Representatives’ website, in the U.S. Capitol Building or requested for a demonstration, according to Zhang.

From learning coding as a hobby to having their skills recognized on the national level, seniors Terry You and Zonglin Zhang and their teammates, Santa Margarita Catholic High seniors Jingwen Mao and Liam Dowd are raising awareness on an issue that hits close to home for many students nation-wide: mental health.

Over the course of five months, You and Zhang set out to create a platform where teenagers could confidentially talk about depression and suicide to a responsive AI model, leading to the first version of the Ember app. They took inspiration from diaries and the Say Something app, where students can express their thoughts safely to a trusted adult. The team won first place for Ember in the 2023 Congressional App Challenge, a national competition that fosters the innovation of computer science in youth.

“There are teenagers who are demanding help but have trouble reaching their trusted adults,” You said. “Some of these teenagers can’t effectively communicate with the right people, or they’re too afraid of communicating, or they don’t know how to. The first version of our idea was very, very different from what we have now. That is because during the process, we keep on asking ourselves: if this teenager does not know how to express themself or doesn’t have the courage to, how do we give them the courage or how can we help them effectively communicate these sensitive thoughts?”

You and Zhang collaborated on the backend, working on the app’s inner complications, while Mao and Dowd worked on the programming the frontend. The ideation process, however, required the four to meet weekly. You said that the group not only had to consider their programming and interface designing experience but also their audience: a House of Representatives member.

“We thought about what American society really cared about,” You said. “Oh, they care about this, so let’s try to find a solution for them. So it was kind of like an answer-and-demand process.”

While the target user demographic was initially teenagers, the group realized by the end of their project that mental health is an issue that affects all people. Zhang said that talking with peers, reviewers and each other ultimately led them to Ember’s motto: everyone helps everyone.

“We wanted to make a platform where everyone could help everyone, not just people limited to your community,” Zhang said. “We had some difficult decisions to make like whether or not the information should be made public because our app was going to get really, really sensitive information from people.”

As winners of the Congressional App Challenge, the team will visit Washington D.C. in April to receive their award. In the meantime, they are working on updating and adding new features to Ember in time for the 2024 Microsoft Imagine Cup, according to Zhang.

“We were not able to do a lot of things because of our time limit and how complicated the programming was,” You said. “In the future, we’re trying to incorporate our app into something that both professional services and counselors can use. That is an idea that we will continue to improve on and develop in the coming months.”

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About the Contributors
Catherine Li, Staff Writer
Catherine Li is a staff writer for her first year on the Portola Pilot. If she’s not stressing over her art portfolio deadlines, you can find her reading up on dead roman guys and having a moment to Jeff Buckley’s music. This is her first year in Portola High and she looks forward to putting forth her best work into the Portola Pilot!
Ruhi Samudra, Sports Editor
Ruhi Samudra is the Sports Editor for her second year on the Portola Pilot. She’s looking forward to being her best social butterfly self this year and getting to know all sorts of people on campus. When she’s not counting the days until she can cover a game again (yay sports!), you can find her obsessing over her purple dinosaur, inhaling all of the cereal-scented candles at Target, or investing her entire life into memoirs just to avoid accepting her own bewilderment.
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