Moorpark teens crack encryption in a computer contest
On your mark, get ready, code!
Teens from across the county gathered in Camarillo on a recent Friday night to hack into computers en masse. Instead of being alarmed, the officials encouraged him.
High school students, more than 100 of them from 40 different schools, were at the Ventura County Office of Education to participate in the annual Hackathon by the Sea competition. The teens were challenged to create an app or website that solves a problem or fill a need, and they only had hours to do it.
The overall winner was a trio from Nordhoff High School in the Ojai Unified School District. Gavin Johnson, Orfeas Magoulas and Caleb Saucedo built a system that allows remote monitoring of plants or gardens from anywhere in the world. The app sends real-time data on the temperature and humidity of plants to the cloud, where it can be accessed via cell phone 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 competition, which began on the evening of January 6 and ended on the afternoon of January 7.
Hershraj and Alex said they worked through the night on pure adrenaline to finish their application.
“I tried to take a nap once or twice, but I couldn’t help but think about some of the problems we had that Alex was trying to solve while I was trying to rest,” Hershraj said.
His brainchild is called PeerConnect. The two 17-year-olds came up with the idea a few days before the competition. To help those who have had a hard time connecting with others during the pandemic, they created an app that matches students who want to talk with peer counselors who are ready to listen.
Problems with the app’s video calling feature kept Hershraj up all night.
“It took all the way up to our presentation to figure out what was going wrong,” Alex said. “That was a stressful experience, but in the end it worked out.”
The couple said it was intimidating to compete in the hackathon. The atmosphere is vibrant and boisterous, with dozens of excited students inside a large room bent over their computers, typing frantically.
“You can’t help but think, ‘How am I going to make something that surpasses everything here?’” Hershraj said.
Hershraj recalled how he and Alex arrived with just their laptops and chargers, while the team behind them brought in a full home computer setup, complete with a monitor and keyboard.
But that’s part of the fun, too, they said.
“I was surprised by how many people were there, because at my school there aren’t many people interested in coding,” Alex said. “That was a bit enlightening for me.”
Jessica Hendrix-Sandoval, advisor to the coding club the two students belong to, said Hershraj, Alex and their friend Ryan McCombs were recently recognized by the Moorpark Unified School District for educational apps they co-developed for teachers and students.
“They are very impressive students,” he said. “We at Moorpark College Secondary School are very proud of Hersh and Alex’s achievements, but even more proud of their initiative and drive to pursue their passions for STEM.”
After 15 hours, PeerConnect was working.
The boys said they were honored to take second place, as doing so was a testament to their hard work.
After leaving with their awards, the students have new aspirations for PeerConnect. They want to add mentoring features to the app and expand its capabilities so it can connect people with mental health professionals.
Hershraj started coding on Discord to stop cyberbullying attacks from bots. The code he developed could detect and remove hate messages and punish offenders. Alex started out in a similar way, creating a Discord bot that tracked COVID-19 stats.
Rather than use their hacking talents for nefarious purposes, Hershraj and Alex hope to create their own startups to make online and offline communities a better place. And there’s no better place to start, the students said, than at the Hackathon by the Sea.
“You quickly make friends. We are all united behind this curtain of creativity,” Hershraj said. “That’s what this whole thing is about.”