When Calvin Huynh first told his mom he wanted to learn to code so he could create his own computer games, there was just one problem.
“He didn’t even know how to read yet,” his mom, Van Hoang, said.
On Saturday Hoang learned that, along with learning to read over the past two years, her 7-year-old also taught himself the computer programming language Scratch.
“He knows more about it than I do,” Hoang said — and she’s a computer scientist.
Calvin was one of 150 students who showed up for the first ever “hackathon” at Laguna Hills High School.
The event was organized in conjunction with Local Hack Day, launched four years ago by Major League Hacking, a New York company that hosts competitive hacking events throughout the year. On Dec. 2, more than 275 communities around the world were slated to host 12-hour hackathons, bringing developers and designers together to learn and create.
Students of all ages, from throughout Orange County, booked out the Laguna Hills High event on Saturday morning.
They started at one of three sessions: coding, 3D printing or building computers. When one 45-minute session was over, students rotated to the next one until they’d been to all three. Then each session got more difficult, so students could build their skills throughout the day and hopefully leave with finished projects to show off.
All of the courses were taught by high school students. And the whole event was organized by Laguna Hill High freshmen Joshua Martinez.
Joshua said he’s loved computers for as long as he can remember. But it wasn’t until the ripe old age of 11 — when he managed to fix a busted family printer that had stumped his parents — that he decided he wanted to pursue a career in technology.
Thanks to online college courses, after-school programs and YouTube, Joshua knows how to code, design items for 3D printing, make apps and more. But he’s most interested in cybersecurity.
“You can exploit harmless devices to do devious things,” he said. And he wants to make that as hard as possible.
That type of malicious activity is what many people think of when they hear the word “hacker.”
“Josh came to me with the amazing idea of a hackathon, and us old people were like, ‘Hack what?’” joked Mike Marzilli, an assistant principal at Laguna Hills High.
Once they learned more about Local Hack Day, Marzilli said the school’s administration quickly threw their support behind the event.
“This is our future right here,” he said, looking around the room.
Sean Larson, an 11-year-old from Foothill Ranch Elementary, found a post about Joshua’s hackathon online and knew he wanted to attend.
Larson has been into electronics “for a while,” ever since he figured out to how to get into his mom’s computer without her password. She wasn’t mad, he said. She was impressed.
The Foothill Ranch boy was most interested in Saturday’s sessions on building computers and 3D printing. With his bright red hair tucked in a baseball cap, he laughed and chatted with new friends as he tried to recreate the logo for software development company GitHub.
Those moments are why 17-year-old Felix Murray — who serves as president of Laguna Hills High’s computer science and robotics club — wanted to help Joshua organize the hackathon.
“Ticking a box on a resume is great,” the senior said. “But it’s more important that we’re getting young people interested in and less afraid of programming.”
Twin 13-year-old sisters Sofie and Tori Terrence learned about the hackathon through their STEM class with Russert. Both girls were excited to take the coding and 3D printing sessions, and they planned to stay for all 12 hours.
Seeing that enthusiasm is exciting, said Roger Huynh, who was invited to attend the hackathon as a guest.
Huynh (no relation to 7-year-old Calvin) has done animation and visual effects in Hollywood for more than two decades, working on movies from the 1996 thriller “Eraser” to “The Lord the Rings: The Two Towers.”
Three years ago he launched Caustics Digital Academy, which is based in Los Angeles with an office in Tustin. The after-school program offers hands-on courses in game design, Java programming and more. Joshua has taken two classes with him, and Huynh said he was impressed with the teen’s talent and drive.
Still Huynh said he was surprised when he heard Joshua had taken the initiative to host a Local Hack Day event, and he had to come see it for himself.
“Having this exposure is great,” Huynh said, with kids quickly immersed in a variety of potential fields.
He said he only hopes that more schools follow through, training their teachers on this technology and offering regular courses so Saturday’s gathering becomes more than a one-time experience.
That’s exactly what Laguna Hills High hopes to do, Marzilli said, with the school building a “makerspace” where students will be able to access to computers for coding, 3D printers and other emerging technology.
And Marzilli said he’s confident that the success of Saturday’s event — coupled with the talent and drive of students like Joshua — will keep that momentum going long after the 12-hour session ended.