Tri-City teens take honorable mention at app-making event

The first day Austin Wilson, Mason Hagemen and Thor Pearson spent at a recent tech event in Seattle didn't end on a high note.

The Tri-City teens were told the smartphone application they worked on for eight hours -- programming, networking and designing -- didn't meet the requirement that it be focused on education.

"We'd spent a day working on something we had to throw away," said Thor, 18.

But even with only one day to come up with an idea and build a new app, the trio took honorable mention at the AT&T Aspire Mobile App Hackathon, receiving prizes and an invitation to another event in Hawaii later this year.

Mason, 16, and Austin, 18, said they've been interested in computers since they were in grade school. Thor came into it a little, later but is particularly interested in graphics.

Austin is the common link. He attends church with Mason, who is homeschooled in Kennewick, and goes to River View High School with Thor in Finley.

Austin, who also does freelance computer work, learned of the developer event and suggested Thor and Mason go with him. While Austin said he had attended similar tech events in the past, the other two hadn't, and relished the opportunity to see what it would be like.

"I really just wanted the experience," Mason said.

The event was at the HUB Seattle, a business and tech incubator near Century Link Field. More than 80 people forming 14 teams competed, though Austin, Mason and Thor said they were the youngest.

Each team had two days to develop an app focused on education. The teens' first idea was an app that would alert a driver when approaching a school safety zone so he or she won't speed.

Organizers provided food and a work space, but everything else was up to the participants.

"We had to do it all there, no advance prepwork," Austin said.

That made it all the more difficult when organizers told them their app idea didn't meet qualifications.

They went to bed that night disappointed but woke up the next morning and immediately hit upon a new idea: an app that would allow students to check their grades, review assignments and communicate with teachers.

"Austin started talking about the intranet, and I blurted out 'Intraschool,' " Mason said.

With only eight hours left, their work was hectic. They designed a simple color scheme and interface and put the other pieces together by emailing files to each other to verify it would work.

"I was just programming for hours straight," Austin said.

The trio got a good reception from judges during a final presentation, specifically for the amount of work they put in and the quality of their idea. They were praised in the event's blog, awarded adapters that would allow them to use a handset with their cellphones and were invited to the Hawaii event in December with some travel expenses paid.

George Hagemen, Mason's father, said he's always supported his son's interest in computers and is impressed with Mason's and his friends' talents. Still, he was surprised at how well they did.

"People who go to those (events) are serious about that kind of thing," Hageman said.

The teens are eagerly awaiting the winter event but their success in Seattle has them thinking ahead. All three want to go to college and believe computer science is a great field. For Thor, getting some real-life developing experience made him want to expand his skills.

"Now I actually want to learn to code," he said. "I probably couldn't get into college on design alone."