BLUE HILL — Pioneer Prize 2021 judges have announced the winners of the fourth annual software competition for high school students on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle.
“This year’s competitors really embodied the ideals of the Pioneer Prize: Whether they’d ever coded before or not, everyone pushed their own boundaries of excellence and grew new skills that really advantaged them — and they did all of this in addition to their school curriculum,” said Lee Buck, co-founder of the competition. “It was difficult to choose this year’s winner because we had two students who were exceptionally enthusiastic, devoted to learning a ‘new craft’ and they presented well in their submissions.”
Buck also served as a competition judge this year along with responsive-web designer Michelle Keyo, and software developer Scott Miller, who is also on the Blue Hill Board of Selectmen.
After careful deliberation, the judges awarded the first prize cash award of $3,000 to Ian Bowden, age 15, of George Stevens Academy. Bowden conceptualized and wrote the code for a program that could auto-pilot a basic, store-bought drone using artificial intelligence for navigation.
“This is Ian’s second year competing in the Pioneer Prize, and this year he really took his thinking and coding skills to the next level,” said his Pioneer Prize mentor, James Rutter, who is Haystack Mountain School of Crafts’ Fab Lab coordinator.
“As a middle-schooler I played a lot of video games,” said Bowden.
“I thought, ‘I could totally make video games,’ and I wanted to learn how to code, so I wrote my first game, which was terrible!” he laughed, “but I’d started to learn it. And then I heard about the Pioneer Prize and that really made me interested in code.”
“I had no idea what this was going to be like,” said Isla Day, age 14, of George Stevens Academy. “But I learned a lot and it was good, so I’m glad I did it!” Day won the $1,500 second prize with a web-based game that enhances environmental awareness: Players interact with Isla’s animated page using clicks to virtually remove plastics from an ice flow, helping to preserve the home of an adorable polar bear. Along the way, players are presented with 22 ways to make a difference in the real world. According to her mentor, Eli Baird, “Isla had this great idea, and it was ambitious because she’d never coded before. We were impressed she took on this coding challenge: She learned a ton, animated her illustrations and made her idea come to life.”
Third prize of $500 was awarded to first-time competitor Khang Nguyen, age 17, also from George Stevens Academy. Khang developed a working prototype for a website that helps users choose which destinations align with their travel objectives, using factors such as budget, climate and more.
As in years past, each Prize competitor was paired with a mentor — a local digital professional who met regularly with the students to support them during the creation of their submissions. This year’s mentors included software architect Eli Baird; Haystack Mountain School of Crafts Fab Lab coordinator James Rutter; web designer and Unity College Marketing Director Alecia Sudmeyer; web developer and Acadia Web Services owner Fred Viennot; as well as innovation and digital-product strategist Morgan White.
This year’s competition producers included Baird, Todd Gilmour and Marion Dillon Morris, all of whom helped ensure the success of the competition with dedicated service behind the scenes of the five-month-long annual competition.
“It’s really an honor to be involved in a creative competition like this,” said Morris, “It challenges students to learn these life-building skills that can have such an impact on their lives moving forward — and I’m always so impressed with what they come up with, it’s very inspiring!”
This year’s challenge was the first to incorporate a design-thinking session, in which students learned how to structure research with potential users and build ‘empathy maps’ to craft a well-scaled ‘solution path’ for their project. “The design-thinking session was composed of a mix of legacy and first-time participants,” according to Gilmour, “and it’s structured so that everyone advances their ideas, their creative-thinking and these career-building skills up a level.”
Established in 2017 by members of the local community, The Pioneer Prize nurtures, recognizes and rewards the remarkable capacity of students who, paired with mentors, develop new digital skills that help bridge the gap between high-value economic opportunities and the local area.
Co-founder Morris said the competition is open to all high school students on the peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington, including students at John Bapst Memorial High School and homeschooled students.