Dominick Pelaia was only nine years old when he began programming robots at the Apple Summer Camp. From there, his interest in coding only grew.
Now an official app developer, Pelaia learned the Swift programming language with his dad. His creative spirit led him to create his first game, Chicken Rumble.
“I wanted to make something fun that me and my friends would like to play,” Pelaia said. “I used a chicken theme because when I was younger, the first thing I built out of LEGOs was a chicken sitting on top of a house.”
The chicken theme would continue throughout his successive games, including the one that led to his success in the Swift Student Challenge.
When the then-eight grader’s inaugural app was accepted to the Apple App Store, he became a member of the Apple Developer Program. Just a few months later, they would invite him to participate in the Swift Student Challenge–a worldwide competition for student developers.
“The fact that my app was able to win because I know there were so many college students that participated … just really amazed me and showed how much hard work could help me do my thing,” he said. “I didn’t have that long to make the app. It was right in the middle of school testing, so I had to find a way to balance studying with actually making it.”
Pelaia and Egg Drop was one of 375 winners worldwide.
Now entering his freshman year of high school at L&N STEM Academy, he’s looking forward to continuing his education in computer science.
His advice for anyone also interested in coding: build a good foundation in math, take advantage of free resources, and never give up.
“Persistence is very important, no matter what goal you’re trying to achieve,” he said. “That was really instrumental when I was developing my first apps. There were a lot of bugs I had to deal with. I would just take a step back, think about it, then come back to it.”
A team of bright minds from Northwest Middle School competed this summer at the Technology Student Association (TSA) National Conference in Lexington for the first time in nearly two decades.
STEM teacher Tracy Anderson restarted the Northwest TSA chapter in 2017, after a five-year break. The team has seen major triumphs at the local and state level since the program has been back, and is one of several KCS schools that participated.
In addition to accomplishing their goal of attending the national conference this year, one eighth grader earned a special recognition, adding to their historic year.
Anderson Vasquez Francisco was the only middle school student in the country to receive the TSA Gold Achievement Award this year.
Gold Achievement requires students to immerse themselves in STEM education, community service, and personal development.
“It was hard. It took a lot of dedication, but I knew that if I got it, I’d be happy,” Vasquez Francisco said.
He was recognized during a ceremony for his outstanding achievement, along with three other KCS high school students.
Vasquez Francisco, along with many of his classmates, competed in several events, like data science and analytics, website design, robotics, chapter team, and foundations of IT.
Although the team didn’t place in the top 10 of their events, Anderson was thankful to have the opportunity to take her students to Lexington.
The team qualified for the national competition last year, but they couldn’t afford the trip to Texas.
While a college and career grant covered the bus fee for the trip, students sold chocolate bars to raise additional funds. After a year of hard work, they were finally able to attend the conference earlier this summer.
“I’m so proud of them for completing and entering projects, doing their best work on events, and working hard to ‘wow’ judges in interviews,” Anderson said. “They now know what has to be done in those finals and plan to work hard for next year in Orlando.”
Several KCS schools competed at the TSA National Conference this year. Below is a list of results for the schools in attendance. A full list can be found here.
7th place in Engineering Design
8th place in Fashion Design and Technology
Hardin Valley Academy
7th place in Chapter Team
Hardin Valley Middle
3rd in Chapter Team
8th in Video Game Design
9th in Data Science and Analytics
Middle School Chapter Advisor of the Year – Riley Speas
Commencement ceremonies are about to begin, and Knox County Schools is celebrating outstanding students in the Class of 2023. For a full list of this year’s valedictorians, salutatorians, and military commitments, visitknoxschools.org/seniors.
When Angel Hellen learned she was the Career Magnet Academy co-valedictorian, she was shocked.
“It’s not something that I had my eye on, and it’s good to see that sometimes you don’t have to plan for things like this,” the senior said. “You just do the work and that will get you there.”
Hellen originally planned to study nursing, but finishing at the top of her class gave her the confidence to chase a different dream. She is now hoping to pursue a pre-med track at Howard University in Washington, D.C., which is among the country’s most prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
As a first-generation American, her dream to attend Howard is personal.
“Coming to America, I never saw anyone like me. When I came here, I felt super-alone,” she said. “From that experience, I’ve always wanted to go to a historically Black college, just so I can see a different side of things. I just want to see myself in a different environment and see what that would foster out of me.”
Hellen was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Congolese Civil War. After her father died as a result of the violence, Hellen, her mother, and her sisters fled the country to Uganda. She was only four.
Living as refugees in Uganda, her family waited for six years to be granted entrance to the United States as asylum-seekers.
Now in the United States for almost a decade, and after putting in years of work to excel academically, Hellen is hoping to earn enough scholarship support to attend Howard, where she has been accepted for enrollment. But whatever happens, she remains positive.
“Even if I don’t go, just knowing that I had the chance to go is just like, ‘I’ve really set myself up to go to this school,’” she said. “Maybe not financially, but academically, I’ve done everything that I could to put myself in the best position at one of the best schools ever.”
She says she has her support system to thank for her success.
“For me, my whole journey from coming to America to this point, I just look back and see a group of people that have been there for me,” Hellen said.
As commencement ceremonies are about to begin, Knox County Schools is celebrating our dedicated valedictorians and salutatorians. This class is an accomplished group of students who have plans to do great things in their futures. Oliver Hemmelgarn is just one example of the high-achieving class of 2023.
Oliver Hemmelgarn spends most weekends exploring the beauty of the Smoky Mountains. As an avid hiker and mountain biker, he has turned his love of the outdoors into a potential career field.
The West High School environmental club co-president plans to pursue a degree in the STEM field at the prestigious Air Force Academy – if a lacrosse injury doesn’t defer him to UT for a year.
The Air Force Academy only accepts approximately 12 percent of applicants with above-average GPAs and test scores.
For the West High co-valedictorian, acceptance to the school was years in the making.
“I love to learn,” Hemmelgarn said. “I just know it’ll prepare me for the future, and you just have to practice at a lot of things you do to get better at it.”
This love of learning spurred him to participate in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, one of the most intense high school academic programs for students.
Students in the IB program take a series of advanced courses and have to complete a CAS project, short for creativity, activity, and service. Following his environmentalist spirit, Hemmelgarn chose to improve an area of the greenway near West by clearing out invasive species.
He believes this passion for the outdoors can carry over to a career in environmental engineering.
“A lot of it is water resources, so making sure pollutants don’t seep into the main streams. There’s a lot of restoration, a lot of water testing. Some of it’s also just sustainable design and just figuring out how to do the least impact,” he said.
In addition to being outside, Hemmelgarn enjoys being active. He has played lacrosse since elementary school and also hopes to join the AFA mountain biking team to see the beauty of Colorado Springs, where the school is located.
He has faith that lacrosse has prepared him for the military in terms of physicality and that “you also form a brotherhood together,” the attackman said.
Hemmelgarn leaves for Basic Military Training in June, where he will endure six grueling weeks of mental and physical training.
“My cousin told me to think of it, especially basic, like a game where they’re just trying to break you. If you can be able to push yourself to the limits and realize that they don’t hate you, it’s just their job,” he said. “You take your emotions out of it and just struggle through it.”
For a full list of the class of 2023 valedictorians, salutatorians, and military commitments, visit knoxschools.org/seniors.
So-Kno Robo, South-Doyle High School’s robotics team, returned from the FIRST Robotics Competition in Houston with a winning robot and an energized perspective to encourage STEM in South Knoxville.
Often referred to as “Worlds,” the FIRST Robotics Competition welcomes over 600 teams from across the globe to compete in a robotics game.
FIRST releases the game guidelines to the participating teams in January, and the teams have until mid-March to design and build their robots before regional competitions begin.
This year, the game called for the robots to move cones from the floor onto poles and inflatable cubes onto wooden boxes. Several teams crafted robots with arms or elevators to lift and place the game pieces, but So-Kno Robo thought outside the box.
“What we figured out really early is that we could be really consistent if we launch it,” said engineering teacher and So-Kno Robo sponsor Kathleen DeVinney.
This spark of ingenuity led the team to win the Creativity Award in their division at Worlds and a nickname around the competition: the Cube Experts.
While the team performed well at the competition, DeVinney’s favorite moment of the trip had nothing to do with robots.
“They have this block party and seeing the kids have so much fun with kids from a completely different team from across the country was a moment like, it’s more than just robots,” she said. “It’s the connections that these kids get to build with these other people that they’ve never met before that are just like them.”
DeVinney hopes that the success of the team invigorates the students and the South Knoxville community around robotics and STEM.
So-Kno Robo has been involved with nearby schools to mentor their LEGO Leagues, an international robotics group for elementary and middle school students. They also attend the schools’ STEM nights to show off their robots to create interest in robotics. The involvement and exposure at an early age will prepare them for robotics when they enter high school, DeVinney said.
She also believes more students at South-Doyle will be inspired by their peers and find an interest in robotics.
“We have a lot of diverse kids here, so this gives them the opportunity that they maybe never would’ve had to get them excited for STEM and engineering and wanting to keep going with it,” DeVinney said.
Watch videos of their FIRST Robotics Competition matches and more information on their season here.
Another competitive season has come to a close in the district, as Farragut High School’s Mock Trial team placed tenth at the state competition last month.
Samantha Garner, a senior and the Mock Trial captain, led the team to several state and district competitions during her time at FHS.
Her passion for Mock Trial began years ago when she was in 5th grade, and her brother participated with his high school team. Ever since she watched him compete, she has been looking forward to her chance to plead her case to the court.
Mock Trial is organized by the Tennessee Bar Association, which creates a unique case every year with different scenarios, witnesses, and experts. The team hosts auditions in November when the case is released to place its members into their roles.
“We take people who are interested in public speaking, law, acting, theater, forensics, and criminal justice. Just so many different people,” Garner said.
Garner, who is interested in becoming a lawyer in the future, was placed as the District Attorney and met with her team over the next few months to discuss the details of the case.
“It’s so cool because you get so close to your teammates over Mock Trial season. You get to work with your teammates over developing your character,” she said. “We get very passionate, so you’re like, should I cry on the stand? Or should I scream, ‘It was her!’ and point to her dramatically?”
Senior and FHS Team MVP Rani Patel joined the team last year to support her friend, Garner, in rebuilding their team.
She said she initially had no interest in law, but once she joined, “I absolutely fell in love with it. That’s actually one of the reasons that I want to go into law. Mock Trial has been an eye-opener for me.”
Farragut’s team is sponsored by teacher Christopher Hampton and is coached by two practicing lawyers, Wesley Eke and Jeff Arms. These lawyers teach the students the legalities of the courtroom and different necessary procedures and help them form their arguments for the competitions.
As the seniors prepare to pass their team on to the next group of Admirals, they know this season is not their last with Mock Trial, as they hope to one day return as coaches for a new generation of Mock Trial competitors.