Photos Rob Smith
On Tuesday, December 14th, Andrew Lemons stood in his Congressional Representative’s office in Rome and received a certificate for winning the Congressional App Challenge for Georgia’s 14th congressional district. There were lots of handshakes, smiling family members, various laudatory remarks, and a photographer snapping pictures. That is pretty heady stuff for a high school senior, but Andrew Lemons is not exactly the average high schooler.
He’s that uncommon combination of intellect, leadership skills, creativity, musical talent, and tech-savvy. The kind of kid parents brag about on their bumper stickers. Lemons is a member of both the Beta Club and the National Honor Society, and he is his high school’s band captain (playing both percussion and keyboards). He is also a self-taught computer programmer and valedictorian for his graduating class at LaFayette High School.
Investing in tomorrow’s programmers
Each year, Members of the U.S. House of Representatives host a competition in their districts to encourage middle school and high school students to learn how to code. This is the Congressional App Challenge (or CAC). One of the purposes of this initiative is to inspire young people to consider careers in the various fields of computer science.
The CAC is initiated annually by the Congressional Internet Caucus; supplemental staffing and support are provided by the Internet Education Foundation. Tens of thousands of students in almost every state have participated in the CAC since it was proposed in a bill by Representative Candice Miller of Michigan’s 10th congressional district. To spotlight the CAC (and as a point of pride for the winners and their families) every winning app can be put on display in the U.S. Capitol Building for one year.
Andrew Lemons first became aware of the contest three years ago when his U.S. government teacher brought it to his attention, telling Lemons, “I know you’re interested in technology. Maybe this would be something you’d be interested in.” Lemons wasn’t sure about it at first, but he gave it some thought and decided to give it a try. And he won. “That was in 2019,” says Lemons, “but nothing came of it because of COVID-19.”
He entered the CAC again in 2021 and won for the second time. Lemons explains, “The first time I won, in 2019, it was for designing an iPhone app; this year’s entry was more of a product that provided a practical service.”
Propelling fundraising into the future
Lemons’ idea for his Congressional App Challenge submission came from a dilemma. He says, “My sister, Erin, was on a volleyball team, and they were doing a fundraiser. It was online, so I looked at it and thought, ‘This is not what online fundraising should be.’ So, I took it and completely built my own system.” As Lemons worked on the project, it grew and improved beyond his original expectations.
He says, “It evolved and became something I was proud of because it worked so well.” The system he created to help his sister’s volleyball team gave birth to Lemons’ CAC project. He called it Propulsion.
“Propulsion is an online fundraising platform for school organizations,” says Lemons. “Because it’s a website, anyone can use it. You could do it from anywhere. Your aunt all the way out in California could go in and use it. It’s made to be used over and over again. You can use it multiple times per year for multiple years.” Propulsion’s users can create an account, manage their fundraiser, read information, and donate right on the website.
The system is secure, set up to protect the fundraiser’s information against illegal activity and scammers. Lemons made sure Propulsion was user-friendly for social media platforms. He says, “You should be able to share your fundraiser very easily on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter.”
For Lemons, participation in the CAC is a way to leave something useful behind when he graduates high school this spring. He says, “Propulsion is completely functional, and I plan on giving it to LaFayette High School before I leave.”
Getting an early start
“I’ve always enjoyed creating things,” Lemons says. “In middle school, I discovered a website called Scratch. It was super simple. I used it throughout middle school. Scratch is a way for kids to explore their interest in programming. It’s an easy way to express creativity through programming. It’s not a way to create things; it’s more of a playground.”
According to Scratch’s website, “Scratch is the world’s largest coding community for children and a coding language with a simple visual interface that allows young people to create digital stories, games, and animations. Scratch promotes computational thinking and problem-solving skills, creative teaching and learning, self-expression and collaboration.” It is produced by a nonprofit foundation, it’s free, and it’s available in more than 70 languages.
Lemons is living proof that platforms like Scratch work, igniting the imaginations of their young users. It wasn’t long before his growing skills and interests drove him to move up to a different level. “About halfway through middle school, I started creating actual programming that created things,” Lemons says. “From then on, I kept it up, kept building and learning. I just enjoyed it so much.”
Congratulations from Congress
Due to a last-minute vote on the House floor, Marjorie Taylor Greene, US Representative for Georgia’s 14th congressional district, could not be at her Rome office to present the winner’s certificate to Lemons. However, she recorded a congratulatory message at the airport, en route to Washington, and sent it to the awards ceremony, where it was played for Lemons and the other attendees.
Congresswoman Greene said, “Andrew Lemons, I want to congratulate you on winning the Congressional App Challenge. Your app was fantastic. I can tell you put a lot of hard work into it, and I’m so glad to award you the certificate for winning the challenge.
I’m sad I can’t be there for the ceremony today. I was looking forward to meeting you in person, but I’ll still get to do that because you’ll be invited to come up to Washington for an award ceremony in the spring. I look forward to seeing you then, Andrew. And again, a big congratulations to you!”
Not resting on his laurels
It would be easy to assume that after winning the Congressional App Challenge, Lemons would naturally pursue an education in computer programming, but he has other plans. He says, “I’ve been accepted to Georgia Tech, where I plan on studying electrical engineering. I want to have a career in electrical engineering, but I also want to work in computer programming as a hobby, where I can build projects and market them.”
That said, Lemons is not waiting to graduate college before getting working experience in the tech field. He has already landed his first paying programming project. His talent and work ethic caught the eye of one of the CAC’s judges, businessman Charles Howell, a retired IT professional who is building a second career by developing software to address business needs he encountered in his IT management life.
Howell’s business is called OpsTempo Software, and Apps Collective and RACI Connect are the two software applications he is presently developing. “Andrew immediately struck me as a young person on a clear path to the future,” Howell says. “As a high school senior, he has already become an accomplished software developer and has a bright vision for his future as an electrical engineer. He is articulate well beyond his age.” Howell adds, “Accomplished software developers are hard to find. That’s been the problem for me in building my business.
Upon watching Andrew’s YouTube demo of his Propulsion app, it was immediately obvious he has mature skills and is good enough for me to engage him in my business. I have a small programming project that would be perfect for him. I am excited to give him some real-world coding experience. If he does well, I may have additional opportunities for him. Working with Andrew begins to satisfy one of my business objectives of getting young people into my business.”
Charles Howell is sure to be only the first of many business owners to take a keen interest in Andrew Lemons. By the time Lemons is finished with his studies at Georgia Tech, there’s no telling how his interests will have evolved, perhaps reaching into areas he has not yet even considered.
Universities like Georgia Tech are famous for opening the possibilities of whole new worlds to bright minds like his. In years to come, whether Lemons builds a career in electrical engineering or computer programming or some yet-to-be-discovered field, it will surprise no one when he succeeds at it. One thing is certain, whatever field Andrew Lemons chooses, he won’t leave it like he found it. As he did with his sister’s volleyball fundraiser, he’ll have to change things for the better. That’s what he does.
Visit Andrew’s website at: https://aglemons.com/