Long fascinated by the inner workings of computers, Spanish River High School juniors Aleksandar Fecteau, Luke Fisher and Maximilian Meiler couldn’t pass up the chance to put their knowledge to the test in a national competition.
Entering a hackathon contest by a teen-run computer programming organization known as canCode (canCode.us), the Boca Raton entrepreneurs sprung into action with great enthusiasm.
Their mission? Create a project within a time limit of two hours to produce a practical teaching application for one of the nonprofit’s computer workshops for underserved youth of elementary school age.
With all three of the Spanish River students being proficient in computer coding and programming, the idea for their submission — which they named the City Simulation Game — came from their own childhood interests.
“We wanted (the project) to be something kids could enjoy, and we know from when we were young kids that clicks and lots of moving parts help make a game fun,” said Fecteau, a member of the threesome whose efforts earned them the national title in the high school division.
The City Simulation Game allows participants to earn money needed to build a city by clicking on moving cars of various colors. That money can then be used to start erecting the buildings floor by floor. The goal of the game is to get all the buildings to the maximum levels and complete the city.
In the process, noted its creators, the children are learning the value of money and its necessity in the growth of a community.
“It’s not just a matter of click and build; the kids have to collect enough money to earn the building blocks for the city,” said Meiler, noting that the project and an instruction manual that could be easily understood by children took every minute of the two-hour mandate.
“They learn as the game goes on that the more clicks and more money they make, the more buildings they can put up,” he said.
After being notified that their presentation had reached semifinal status, the trio had to appear virtually before a panel of judges to explain the technological mechanisms and coding systems involved in their project.
“We were super excited but also super nervous because we had to explain everything involved with putting the game together,” Meiler said.
The trio acknowledged that none of their accomplishments would have been realized had they not been notified about the contest from Michael Vargas, their computer science teacher.
Despite the time constraints and pressure to get everything done in time (it took 40 minutes just to complete the manual), the Spanish River teens impressed the judges so much that they were awarded first place during canCode’s first hackathon awards ceremony on April 11.
“It was so cool. We didn’t expect it at all,” Fisher said. “It made our day. It was just the icing on the cake because we were already happy to have created something that kids could enjoy, have fun with and learn new skills.”
The students, who for the competition created the team name Hecor Computer Science Industries as a fun reference to a friend, spent the first hour and 20 minutes designing and implementing the coding required to create all the aspects of the city. A small panel showing how much money is collected through each click appears in the upper left corner.
CanCode is the brainchild of 18-year-old Noah Rubin, who is now a senior at Rosenblatt High School on the campus of Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton. Rubin first started the nonprofit when he was in the eighth grade.
His intent is to provide a positive learning experience for those who may not have sufficient access to computers and the internet. The organization accomplishes its mission through video games used to instruct the elementary schoolers during weekly Zoom workshops.
“I was thrilled that when I first got involved in this I was able to find many like-minded teenagers who also wanted to learn how to share their passion for (computer) programming,” Rubin said.
He recruited the assistance of American Heritage Delray senior Alex Mark, Olympic Heights junior Gabriella Davis and homeschooled junior Keanu Brayman in planning the virtual hackathon competition.
To date, canCode has engaged about 20 teenage volunteers to teach weekly workshops to community center participants, after-school groups and young students during class breaks. To date, about 400 children in need have benefited.
Among Rubin’s first initiatives was teaching underserved elementary schoolers at the Youth Activity Center in Boca Raton the basics of coding through the creation of a video game.
After winning a $15,000 award from the Philanthropy Tank Palm Beach in 2018, Rubin began to reach more students and transform the organization into a 501c3 nonprofit.
“Everything about canCode has been built by teenage volunteers — our website, our curriculum, our social media, etc.,” said Rubin, who has studied at Donna Klein since the third grade. “I owe so much to Philanthropy Tank. I received help with connections, funding (for legal fees, materials and laptops to serve low-income youth) and mentorship.”
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Elementary school students have been motivated to come back weekly for the virtual workshops, and canCode’s volunteers have worked tirelessly to ensure that there is a fun and challenging curriculum to teach every week.
Even if they hadn’t won the title, Fecteau, Fisher and Meiler said they would be proud of their accomplishment.
“We knew we were doing something positive and fun for the kids, and although we haven’t seen them actually playing the game, we have heard very good things from Noah,” Fecteau said. “It will be really great when we can see the smiles on their faces as they enjoy the game.”
The second-and third-place finishers in the high school division also featured south Palm Beach County students.
American Heritage Boca Delray junior Evan Vera was runner-up for his Bogusly Bodacrow Pacmanacman project, while the combined Olympic Heights/G-star School of the Arts team of Ethan Baker (junior), Vladimir Pierre (sophomore) and Asher Moffitt (junior) rounded out the top three with their Spaceship Defender creation.