Students + Campus

Problem-solving teens win $5,000 prize in UCLA’s first app-design contest

Code for the Mission paired tech-savvy students and UCLA researchers to translate technical expertise into public benefit

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Code for the Mission service team
Stefanie Pietkiewicz/UCLA

The team that won in the service category designed an app that lets people self-administer a hearing test.

William Fu, a junior at La Canada High, noticed that his school had a problem.

Teachers and kids alike grumbled about the periodic hearing tests every student was required to undergo. Huge trucks loaded with auditory equipment would arrive at the school, forcing students to miss classes for lengthy screenings.

When Fu, 16, learned about UCLA’s Code for the Mission contest, he realized he could use his interest in programming to enter the contest and simultaneously try to eliminate the time-consuming hearing tests.

Code for the Mission competition was launched by the UCLA Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Sponsored Research and Office of Information Technology to encourage the campus community to develop mobile apps in three categories that match the university’s mission of research, education and service.

“By translating faculty members’ expertise into apps, UCLA can help solve societal problems and benefit the public,” explained Emily Loughran, director of licensing for UCLA’s Office of Intellectual Property. “To promote the competition, we organized a summer series of speed-dating meet ups and boot camps to match tech-savvy students with UCLA researchers. It was a win-win for everyone.”

After hearing about Code for the Mission, Fu teamed with four talented classmates and started programming an app that would allow people to accurately test their hearing at any time in the privacy of their own homes.

“I had learned how to program computers and manipulate sound frequencies at UC Irvine’s Cosmos science camp the previous summer,” Fu said. “That’s partly why I chose to create this type of app.”

Working over the summer, Fu and four of his talented classmates created uHearingTest, a comprehensive tool available for download on any iPhone or iPad. The innovative app impressed the judges, which included a roster of UCLA and industry leaders in education, business and technology, and earned Fu’s team the winning entry in the Code for the Mission’s service category.

A team composed of Willeke Wendrich, a professor of Egyptian archaeology in the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures; Stephen Davison, head of the UCLA Digital Library Program; Rhyss Leary and Mojgan Eshraghi, both programmer/analysts with UCLA Events and Transportation; and Kristian Allen, a programmer/analyst in UCLA Library Information Technology won in the research category for its digital libraries application that will allow users to access to relevant content from any of UCLA’s digital libraries using geo-location technology.

“You have a map, and your smartphone will tell the map where you’re standing and the database tells you where the points of interest are relative to the map,” Leary said.

Wendrich added that UCLA’s digital library has hundreds of thousands of digital photographs, text, video, and audio files. “The digital library reader opens up a treasure trove of information to a wide audience. It allows users to explore information in their immediate surroundings, or on the other side of the world. It provides users with well-vetted quality information about the places they are interested in.”

Jeroen Ooms, a postdoctoral researcher, Steven Nolen and Hongsuda Tangmunarunkit, both programmer/analysts, and all of whom work in the Department of Statistics, won the education category for a web-based application that builds on tools created for Mobilize, an interactive dashboard that allows LAUSD high school students to easily understand, interact with and analyze data. The new app will allow students the ability to quickly and effectively analyze the data they’ve collected from their own surveys, Nolen said.

Each team received $5,000 in prize money provided by the Office for the Vice Chancellor for Research during a Sept. 17 ceremony at the California NanoSystems Institute.

Fu’s team relied on the mentoring and technical expertise of his father, Qian-Jie Fu, director of the signal processing and auditory perception laboratory at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Fu’s dad brought in Michael Sachs, chief administrative officer for the Department of Head and Neck Surgery, to help debug the app.

“My job was basically to try and break the program,” Sachs joked. 

Growing serious, Sachs added, “Hearing loss is the third-most common U.S. ailment after heart disease and arthritis. More than 43 million Americans suffer from diminished hearing, yet the majority of affected people are unaware of it. More than half of these children and adults are in school or working, and studies show that hearing loss directly correlates with poor grades and lower income. This app tied beautifully into our department’s mission for patient education and community engagement.”

Communicating via Skype over weekends, the five boys managed every aspect of the process. Fu developed the program; Albert Zhai, 14, created color graphics and on-screen buttons; Philipp Wu, 17, supervised the smooth flow of one screen to the next; Alex Zhao, 15, wrote detailed instructions and a user help page; and Suraj Patel, 17, repeatedly tested the app to pinpoint any errors that needed fixing.  The group also recruited 25 fellow students to test the tool and uncover tiny glitches.

Anyone can download uHearingTest, take the test and self-diagnose if they’ve suffered hearing loss at various frequencies in one or both ears. If you’re short on time the students created three versions ranging from two to six minutes to complete. If someone’s test results show damaged hearing, the app generates an alert advising the user to consult an expert for follow-up diagnosis and care.

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