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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Red Bank High School sophomore computer science student Keena Milligan puts the finishing touches on her group presentation on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, in Red Bank, Tenn.

This story was updated on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, at 4:22 p.m. to correct the company where Sukriti Chadha previously worked as a developer.

Sukriti Chadha, a product manager for Spotify specializing in adaptive technology, is passionate about encouraging students to pursue careers in technology.

When she left Manhattan to stay with a friend in Chattanooga during the pandemic, she took an opportunity to work with Red Bank High School students to design projects that would help a peer with autism become more independent.

After immigrating to the U.S. from New Delhi, India, in 2010, Chadha graduated from Princeton University with a degree in electrical engineering. Bored with the consulting job she worked after graduating, Chadha taught herself software development and became an Android developer for Yahoo Finance, the largest finance news website for retail investors.

Her interest in adaptive technology — which involves creating special versions of existing technologies that help people with differing abilities accomplish specific tasks — began when her father lost his vision in one eye. His experience taught her how dependent we are on technology in our everyday lives, and the pandemic has emphasized that dependence even further, she said.

Chadha met Red Bank High School computer science teacher and fellow private pilot David Wilson at flight school in Chattanooga, and she heartily agreed when he asked her to speak to his students about careers in tech.

"At this particular school, it seemed like they were solving a problem that we are very acutely aware of in the tech industry, which is that people from diverse backgrounds usually don't have the training or the education to qualify for tech jobs," Chadha said of Red Bank High School, which is home to the BlueCross Technology Academy Future Ready Institute. "This school seems to be solving that problem by bringing kids who are talented and training them with practical knowledge.

"It's also become so much clearer during the pandemic how much our lives are dependent on technology. It just amplifies why I chose this career path to begin with."

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Students develop adaptive technology

As part of a design-focused project, Wilson's computer science students and Nick Boehm's engineering students met with the father of a 13-year-old RBHS student with autism to learn about his son's needs. The students were tasked with understanding those needs, brainstorming technology-based solutions and ultimately building a product to resolve those needs based on the father's feedback about their ideas.

Students then presented their projects to a panel comprised of Chadha and professionals from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and LAUNCH Chattanooga, who judged the projects based on which would be most impactful to the student with autism.

The goal was to give greater independence to their autistic peer through their projects, which addressed issues including their nonverbal peer's difficulty in communicating and his tendency to wander.

Several of the projects addressed that tendency with GPS tracking devices to help the student's father find him.

One group of students adapted their original idea of a tracking device, EyeTile, that would attach to his shoe after learning from the boy's father that he often took off his shoes before wandering off.

Another group designed a vest that served as a tracking device, which provided the additional benefit of notifying the boy's father when wet, as he often jumps into whatever bodies of water he encounters.

"This vest has the power to change his life, like a Christmas miracle," said Zack Pham, a member of the group that designed the product. "He would be able to gain independence other teenagers have. And as for his father, he would be alerted if he was in any form of danger, so he can feel more assured that he is safe whenever he is by himself."

MyButtons, another one of the top three designs, allows the user to program buttons to stick in various locations that play recorded messages when pushed. They can also be attached to an intercom system to alert others when a button is pressed, such as a button attached to the front door.

"I've been incredibly impressed with these kids' depth of questions and how much empathy they showed during this design and prototyping process," Chadha said.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.

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