By Team DASA

This is a spotlight of 2020 Regional Winner Team DASA, who created the AI-powered app Calmzilla to help middle school students manage stress. A version of this interview appeared on medium.

Stress is an inevitable part of life. It impacts our ability to function well and reduces our chances of maximizing our potential. It also makes us cranky and unpleasant to be around. Historically, stress seemed to be an issue for adults. However, we have seen more and more stress among our fellow students.

We find ourselves doing more at school, outside, and online – however we still only have 24 hours in a day to accommodate these increasing demands while maintaining our grades. We are often asked to multi-task, so it’s hard to focus. We are being taken from one activity to another so meals tend to be on the go, and what used to be family time has now been taken over by social media interactions where we are in a constant arms race to be more interesting than others.

We are a group of 6th graders (DASA — Danika, Ananya, Sofia and Arushi). We built Calmzilla, an AI-based app that we created to help our fellow students with a growing problem – middle school stress.

We wanted to understand this problem better, so we started by talking with our school counselor. She confirmed what we were seeing ourselves, stress is indeed increasing in our school community. We then extended our research to get additional perspectives.

We created a survey that more than a hundred of our fellow students took part in. The results showed us that nearly half of the students reported stress. We also learned that some activities increased stress and some reduced stress!

We also took some time to research the teen stress topic online and found many articles that showed the impact of stress moving downward from adults, to High School Students, to Middle School and even lower!

These were some scary findings and we really felt motivated to do something about it because it is personal, among our friends, in our communities, and aggressively growing at the national and international level. This drove us to invent Calmzilla.

What is Calmzilla?

Calmzilla is an easy to use iPhone app for middle school students and parents.

Students chat with Chai, a friendly Puppy Bot, and answer questions about their day and get recommendations of stress relieving games to play. Internally, our app uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to predict a student’s stress level from their answers and make game recommendations. Parents also get updates over email with insights into how their children are trending with respect to stress. Students can use this app on an iPhone or an iPad. We worked with our parents to develop this app using Xcode and trained the AIs online at AIClub.

We trained several AIs, some that use Natural Language Processing to understand the stress level of student chat responses, and some that use Classification techniques to learn from patterns of Sleep, Hours of Homework, etc. and map that to stress levels. We used the data from our school survey to train our AIs.

What Did We Learn?

We learned several things from our experience. First, stress has many factors, and it was helpful to combine both freeform answers and other data like sleep patterns, to assess it. Secondly, privacy is an important issue. We learned the importance of making sure each child’s data was protected, and that both the parents and the children understand how the app manages the child’s responses and protects the data privacy at the individual level. Additionally, we also learned that the diversity of factors that impact stress is not possible to understand manually. AI is really great at sorting out what matters most and detecting patterns from the large dataset we provided.

Teamwork

As a team, we brought each other’s strengths to their full potential, and it was pretty amazing to see how we expanded on each other’s ideas as we brainstormed. Since we were working on one project, it was great to see things from a fresh perspective and learn from the other’s areas of expertise. It was also more efficient when we divided up the work and we reached more people as we could get data from everyone’s different networks. We definitely had many spirited debates about specific decisions (like the design aspect), but ultimately that helped us cultivate even better ideas that everyone found great. Sometimes scheduling was hard, because everyone wasn’t always available at the same time. After covid, we couldn’t really meet up, so we worked on Calmzilla over phone calls which was harder because it wasn’t face to face. Working together was definitely so much fun. We bonded a lot and made quite a few inside jokes. We all successfully collaborated with each other to make the app.

Our Proudest Moments!

Our proudest moment was when we finally got our data-collecting surveys out to our school and finally started getting tons of responses. This was right after we had our survey posted to our school. It had taken a really long time to get that out, multiple requests and emails too. We were really happy that we got that real-time data because that meant we could train our AI’s with data we had collected from scratch, which was quite a feat. Another proud moment of our project was when we were able to get over 80% accuracy on our AI, which was a very good score at the time.

Advice for Young Inventors and Builders

There were many setbacks to CalmZilla that we had to face in order to be successful. Because we were determined to persevere through the obstacles thrown at us, we ended up being successful. If you are working on something and you come across adversity and setbacks, just keep persevering and stay determined. In the end, there’s no difficulty you can’t overcome with determination. Keeping this value will help you keep moving forward. Don’t be discouraged if things initially don’t work out, and seek the help of others when it’s needed. We would advise young designers to make sure they listen to others. Different people will have many different views on how to do things, which will make for the design to be very well done. Remember, nobody reaches their goal immediately without any struggle, and besides in the long run, it’ll be worth it.

Where do We Go from Here?

Calmzilla is an important first step towards a much larger journey. Engaging the community and gathering this data unlocked our ability to experiment with AI, study stress patterns, and engage with students in ways they could relate to (e.g., Play games).

Each child is unique, and what might cause stress in one child might be different than what might cause it in another child. Other factors like home environment, culture, perceived differences in socio-economic status could also contribute to heightened sense of anxiety, insecurity and stress. There are so many data points that to fully analyze, understand the patterns, and offer solutions simply cannot be done manually. In the future, we would like to further leverage AI to adapt our app to different ages and cultures, integrate user feedback, and expand the options we provide to students to manage their stress. We would also welcome the opportunity to collaborate with research scientists at academic institutions to further our research on this topic. If you are interested to collaborate, please reach out to us at [email protected]