League of Amazing Programmers team takes top prize in design contest

The Carmel Valley-based nonprofit League of Amazing Programmers has stayed true to its name, producing some amazing young programmers. In the recent Design for San Diego Civic Challenge, the League’s high school-aged participants took home the $5,000 prize, besting design professionals, college and graduate students for their Cycle Detection project, a way to make bicycles more visible to cars on the road in an autonomous world.

Team Cycle Detection included D.J. Nelson, a freshman at Francis Parker; James Maron a sophomore at Canyon Crest Academy; and Savera Soin, a junior at Canyon Crest Academy and a graduate of R. Roger Rowe School in Rancho Santa Fe. Mentor Stephen Cerruti assisted them on the project.

“I knew the students could hold their own, but I had no idea that one of the League’s teams might win,” said Becky Deller, the League’s director of community engagement who lobbied for League students to be able to take part in the competition just for the experience.

The finalists, selected out of 50 applicants, presented their projects to judges in front of a live audience at the Design Forward Summit at Liberty Station. In addition to their $5,000 prize, the students also won the opportunity to work with the UC San Diego Design Lab, the San Diego Association of Governors and the venture capital and private equity firm SCALE SD to implement their idea.

Another League of Amazing Programmers group, which included high schoolers and one middle school student, was named a finalist for their project on a parking app.

The parking app was created by a team of four that included Tyler Reinecke, a senior at Del Norte High School; Thomas Twomey, a senior at Cathedral Catholic High School; Jangwoo Lee, a sophomore at Canyon Crest Academy; and Adrian Derderian, an eighth grader at Escondido Christian School

They were mentored by Dave Dunn.

“We are so proud of our students,” said Vicki Barks, executive director of the League. “All of the students who participated have been taking classes at The League for two to three years and most have already taken and passed the AP Computer science exam in 9th or 10th grade.”

Carmel Valley resident Vic Wintress and his wife, Diane, formed the League 10 years ago with a mission to “ignite young minds through programming” and “provide students with a direct entry path into the workforce.” For the last six years, the nonprofit has been based in the Hacienda building in Carmel Valley.

At the League, students learn from a group of programmers, hardware and software pros and robotics programmers — there are five staff teachers but 20 are volunteers who are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge and passion. The curriculum is designed to be fun and engaging – no books, no homework.

Students devote Sunday nights to The League, working in small groups with mentors on “recipe”-oriented projects, learning the basics of programming at their own pace, and building a solid foundation for tackling new technologies and programming languages. Students graduate to the next level by passing exams that include a written portion and coding exercise.

The goal is to turn students into an employable programmer in four to six years. As students go at their own pace, students like the eighth grader Adrian will be employable by the time he’s a freshman in high school.

“For me it started with video games, I wanted to learn coding,” said James, the CCA sophomore on the winning design team.

He attended some summer courses on “drag and drop” programming but said he found it a little too easy. Once he tried a workshop at the League, he liked it a lot and decided to keep going.

With their Bike Transponders project, the group of three was looking to solve the safety issues for bike commuters — they found that in 2012 there were 726 reported bike accident deaths and 49,000 injuries and that 21 percent of people in inner-cities are too afraid to ride their bikes to get to where they are going.

“The problem is when bikes and cars share the road, sometimes cars don’t see the bikes and cause accidents and crashes,” James said. “The project tries to make bicycles more visible from the car standpoint, where the car can detect bikes on the road.”

As Savera explained, their idea was to implement dedicated short-range communications transponders into bikes and using vehicle to vehicle technology, the transponder would warn the vehicle of the cyclist sharing the road, how far away it is and what direction it is traveling in.

“At the end, they said we were the clear winner out of all the finalists,” D.J. said.

The League’s other finalist, the parking app group, got their idea from how difficult it is to find parking when you go downtown, Tyler said.

As modern parking structures often contain sensors that notify people of vacant spots within a structure, their idea was to utilize those sensors to create an app that notifies drivers of vacant spots on the street and in lots as well as structures.

The app would display the nearest space as well as the navigation and could also list parking costs, locate nearby electric vehicle charging locations or handicapped spaces.

“I was blown away, I was really shocked,” Barks said of how well the League performed in the competition. “The students really only worked together for around three to four weeks, meeting once a week, on their projects. It’s amazing.”

Barks, a Del Mar resident who has 20 years of experience as a programmer, started at the League as a parent — her son was involved in the League from fifth grade through high school.

She then became a volunteer teacher and when the executive director stepped down, she took over as of Oct. 1 this year.

As a nonprofit, they offer 30 percent of their classes for free, offering the same access that kids locally might have to students in southeast San Diego at locations at the Central Library and Malcolm X Library.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to give those students equal footing,” Barks said, noting that all donations received go to those classes and workshops.

Barks said that all of their 300-some students throughout San Diego are receiving “amazing, elite, college-level material” and they leave fully prepared for science and technology careers of the 21st century.

“They can do whatever they want,” Barks said.

The League of Amazing Programmers will host upcoming workshops over the Thanksgiving and winter breaks. For more information, visit Jointheleague.org.

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