Los Gatos stu­dents launch anti-bias app

The Mercury News - - Local News - By Judy Peter­son jpeter­son@ba­yarea news­group.com Con­tact Judy Peter­son at 408-200-1038.

As Los Gatos High School teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors work to in­te­grate anti-racial bias teach­ings into the cur­ricu­lum, a group of stu­dents has been toil­ing be­hind the scenes to de­velop a smart­phone app they hope will elim­i­nate prej­u­dice.

Later this month, the de­vel­op­ers will demon­strate the app at an open house.

The app is at the core of the stu­dent-led Fi­los Project, aimed at com­bat­ing prej­u­dice and so­cial stereo­types. Stu­dents who join the project are asked to take a pledge that they’re com­mit­ted to get­ting “rid of ha­tred and prej­u­dice.”

Fi­los means friend in Greek, but in this case it’s also an acro­nym for “First Im­pres­sions Live On Sub­con­sciously.” The Fi­los idea orig­i­nated last spring when stu­dent Gabriel San­doval was writ­ing a pa­per about “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird.”

“I re­al­ized then that if peo­ple knew each oth­ers’ back­grounds bet­ter, they might not be prej­u­diced,” Gabriel said.

His mom, high school English teacher Kris­ten Austin, told him, “There must be an app for that.” She shared the idea with se­nior Shomil Jain.

Shomil and other stu­dents spent last sum­mer de­vel­op­ing the app for iPhones. An An­droid app is ex­pected soon.

“We have an al­go­rithm that helps us get a sense of what a stu­dent is like— their life ex­pe­ri­ences, is­sues they’re fac­ing, ac­tiv­i­ties—things that shape their lives,” Shomil said. “The al­go­rithm tries to open your hori­zons, so you ex­pe­ri­ence things you haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore.”

There’s a role for teach­ers and stu­dents be­cause the app is de­signed for the class­room. Teach­ers open an ac­count and re­quest a ses­sion with an­other class­room, and the al­go­rithm pur­posely con­nects two classes with dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics. The al­go­rithm con­tin­ues to anony­mously pair stu­dents within the par­tic­i­pat­ing class­rooms and they be­gin chat­ting.

Although the project was al­ready be­ing dis­cussed when last spring’s racist prom pro­posal con­tro­versy sur­faced, the de­vel­op­ers said that “pushed it along.”

“The black­face in­ci­dent showed the need for ex­po­sure here,” se­nior Quintin Leary said. “One void we’re try­ing to fill is to get peo­ple to form per­sonal con­nec­tions with peo­ple they might not have the op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act with.”

Even­tu­ally, it’s hoped the Fi­los plat­form will con­nect stu­dents ev­ery­where. But for now, the con­nec­tions are lim­ited to the high school.

Se­nior Bi­nat Gousi­nov was one of the first to test the app and gave it high marks.

“The testers set up ac­counts and once we filled out a ques­tion­naire we were matched up with an­other tester,” Bi­nat said. “I didn’t know who it was, so I sent an ‘ice-breaker’ ques­tion ask­ing if any­thing was both­er­ing him or her and the con­ver­sa­tion evolved from there.”

The stu­dents be­lieve that keep­ing chats anony­mous will also keep peo­ple from form­ing judg­ments. But the ul­ti­mate goal is for the anony­mous chats to lead to face-to-face re­la­tion­ships and friend­ships, Austin said.

Ju­nior Ana Cis­maru said the high school’s depart­ment heads were en­thu­si­as­tic about the app when the de­vel­op­ers spoke to them a few weeks ago.

Teach­ers, stu­dents and other com­mu­nity mem­bers are in­vited to learn more about the app and how it works on at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 when the de­vel­op­ers hold an in­for­ma­tional meet­ing at the the school li­brary, 20 High School Court.

Also visit filospro­ject.org for more information.

GE­ORGE SAKKESTAD — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Fi­los Project mem­bers, from left, Ana Cis­maru, Shomil Jain and Gabriel San­doval re­view data from their app that they hope it will help elim­i­nate prej­u­dice at Los Gatos High.

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