Linden High School freshmen Paul Niziolek and Gurvir Singh were chosen as winners for New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District in the Congressional App Challenge, the nation’s largest student computer science competition. Below is a video the two students created and submitted with their app to explain their work to the judges.

By Gary Miller

Two Linden High School computer science students have created a video game called “The Trials,” in which a player must overcome obstacles and solve puzzles to advance to the next level and win the game.

The theme was appropriate for ninth-graders Paul Niziolek and Gurvir Singh, who had to overcome their own challenges and solve significant problems – but now they have emerged victorious.

The pair have been chosen as winners in the fourth annual Congressional App Challenge, the largest student computer science competition in the nation. Their app was chosen as the best in New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District, which covers parts of Union, Essex and Hudson counties.

“It’s surprising and shocking, but I’m definitely excited about winning,” said Niziolek. “It was a good feeling to know that we won when we only had about two weeks to finish the project.”

They each won a $250 Amazon gift card and will be honored in Washington, D.C., though they don’t know the details of that yet.

“Congratulations to Paul and Gurvir on this amazing accomplishment,” said Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi. “In ninth-grade, they are doing things that a lot of adults don’t even understand. But to see them honored by Congress shows that they and their teachers at Linden High School are doing incredible, cutting-edge work.”

SEE A FULL LIST OF WINNERS

Holly Sepulveda, who teaches Singh and Niziolek in her Computer Science Principals class, told the pair about the Congressional App Challenge “and they jumped right on it.”

“They’re very bright boys,” she said. “They came into class knowing so much. I have them and a couple of other students assisting the rest of the students with the lessons because they know a vast variety of computer science.”

The two boys explained that they got started late and didn’t have as much time as other competitors had to complete the challenge. But they buckled down and spent all their spare time on finishing and getting it right.

“We took one or two days to brainstorm what we wanted it to be,” Singh said. “Then we settled on something like platforming with puzzle elements involved. Then we started creating it slowly and it started to come together.”

They explained that they used a platform called Unreal Engine to create their app. The engine is used by professional game developers for popular games such as Fortnite and allows the user to import assets and coding so that they don’t have to start from scratch.

When asked what set their app apart from others in the competition, Singh guessed that it was the size of their creation.

“It was a big-scale project,” he said. “Most games that other students make is based off another thing and it’s a lot less professional. The Unreal Engine is used by actual game developers. So we used something professional, and that made it look like a professional app.”

Paul Niziolek and Gurvir Singh with computer science teacher Holly Sepulveda at the LHS Academy of Science and Technology.

Though Sepulveda has guided Singh and Niziolek in planning out an app and how to test and modify their coding, much of what they know about programming is self-taught.

“We talk about it sometimes because they finish their assignments so quickly,” Sepulveda said. “I asked them where they learn all this. They told me they researched the information at home. They want me to stay after with them sometimes to learn different coding languages and things like that. They’ve been hungry to learn since the first day.”

Nevertheless, she wasn’t sure what to expect when they were creating “The Trials” for the Congressional App Challenge.

“I was very surprised,” she said. “I was asking them about it and they would just say, ‘We’re working on it.’ They were secretive about it. So I was kind of nervous.

“They showed me when they were done and I thought, oh, wow, that’s really amazing!”

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The next challenge for Singh and Niziolek, who are both considering majoring in computer science in college, is the creation of a Coding Club at LHS. The proposal will go before the Board of Education in January, and if approved the club will meet once a week.

“Many of the people in our class wanted to learn coding, so we thought we would create the coding club to teach all of them at once,” Niziolek said.

Students interested in coding had an informal meeting during the recent Computer Science Education Week, and about a dozen students showed up.

“We got them to make their own calculator app,” Singh said. “We’re going to try to expand on that in January, once the club is official. By the end of the year we want to have a joint project to make an app and maybe publish it.”