Middle School Student Wins Apple’s Swift Student Challenge

Middle School Student Wins Apple’s Swift Student Challenge

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.”

Northwest STEM Team Returns To Nationals In Historic Year

Northwest STEM Team Returns To Nationals In Historic Year

Northwest Middle School students load the bus before heading to Lexington, Kentucky, on June 28, 2023, for the 2023 TSA National Conference.

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

Farragut High

  • 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

Karns High

  • 1st in Debating Technological Issues
  • 3rd in Chapter Team
  • Gold Achievement Award – Eli Hicks
  • Gold Achievement Award – Meredith Morgan
  • Technology Honor Society – Eli Hicks

Powell High

  • Gold Achievement Award – Brian Galvan
West Co-Valedictorian Aims For Air Force Academy

West Co-Valedictorian Aims For Air Force Academy

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 Goes To Worlds

So-Kno Robo Goes To Worlds

So-Kno Robo at the 2023 Smoky Mountains Regional competition that qualified them for Worlds.

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.