County teens show off coding skills

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

On your mark, get set, code!

Teens from throughout the county converged in Camarillo on a recent Friday night to do some en masse computer hacking. Rather than being alarmed, officials encouraged it.

The high school students, over 100 of them from 40 schools, were at the Ventura County Office of Education to take park in the annual Hackathon by the Sea competition.

These budding programmers were challenged to create an app or website that solves a problem or fills a need—and they had only hours in which to do so.

The overall winner was a trio from Ojai Unified School District’s Nordhoff High. Gavin Johnson, Orfeas Magoulas and Caleb Saucedo built a system that allows plants and gardens to be remotely monitored from anywhere in the world. The app sends real-time data about the plants’ temperature and humidity to the cloud, where it can be accessed via cellphone or computer.

Two High School at Moorpark College students, Hershraj Niranjani and Alex Sherbrooke, took first place in the education category and second prize overall during the overnight competition, which began the evening of Jan. 6 and ended late in the afternoon Jan. 7.

RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers

RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers

Hershraj and Alex said they worked through the night on sheer adrenaline to finish their app.

“I tried to nap once or twice, but I couldn’t help but think about some of the issues we were having that Alex was trying to hack while I was trying to rest,” Hershraj said.

Hershraj and Alex’s brainchild is called PeerConnect. The 17-year-olds came up with the idea a few days before the competition.

To help those who’ve had a hard time connecting with others during the pandemic, they created an app that pairs students wanting to talk with peer advisors who are ready to listen.

Issues with the app’s video call feature kept Hershraj awake through the night.

“It took all the way up until our presentation to figure out what was going wrong,” Alex said. “That was a stressful experience, but it worked out in the end.”

The pair said it was intimidating to compete in the hackathon. The atmosphere is vibrant and bustling, with dozens of excited students inside a large room hunched over their computers, frantically typing away.

“You can’t help but think, ‘How am I going to do anything that beats anything here?’” Hershraj said.

He recalled how he and Alex arrived carrying only their laptops and chargers, while the team behind them brought an entire home computer setup, complete with a monitor and keyboard.

But that’s also part of the fun, they said.

“I was surprised how many people were there because at my school there’s not many people who are interested in coding,” Alex said. “That was kind of enlightening to me.”

Jessica Hendrix-Sandoval, the advisor of the coding club that the two students belong to, said Hershraj, Alex and their friend Ryan McCombs were recently recognized by the Moorpark Unified School District for the educational apps they co-developed for teachers and students.

“They are very impressive students,” she said. “We at the High School at Moorpark College are so proud of Hersh and Alex’s accomplishments, but even more so of their initiative and drive in pursuing their passions for STEM.”

After 15 hours, PeerConnect was up and running.

The boys said they were honored to take second place because placing at all was a testament to their hard work.

After walking away with their awards, the students have new aspirations for PeerConnect. They want to add tutoring features to the app and broaden its capabilities so it can connect people to mental health professionals.

Hershraj began coding on Discord to stop cyberbullying attacks from bots. The code he developed could detect and delete hateful messages and punish offenders.

Alex started in a similar way, creating a Discord bot that tracked COVID-19 statistics.

Rather than using their hacking talents for nefarious purposes, Hershraj and Alex hope to create their own startups to make online and offline communities safer and better.

And there’s no better place to get started, the students said, than at the Hackathon by the Sea.

“ You very quickly make friends. We’re all bonded together behind this curtain of creativity,” Hershraj said. “That’s what this whole thing is all about.” CODE OF HONOR—Top, Nordhoff High School’s Gavin Johnson, Caleb Saucedo and Orfeas Magoulas took first place in the annual Hackathon by the Sea. Above, High School at Moorpark College seniors Hershraj Niranjani and Alex Sherbrooke placed second in the event and first in the education category.