Self-taught programmer and Grade 12 student Aidan Eglin wins $80k scholarship to university

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Award-winning student, Aidan Eglin, reflects on his greatest achievements and looks ahead to a bright future of learning.

By Fiona Lam

Aidan Eglin, a 17-year student from Okanagan, is one of the select few across Canada nominated for a Schulich Leader Scholarship, the most coveted undergraduate STEM scholarship. He will receive $80k towards his studies at the University of British Columbia where he begins his post-secondary studies this fall. 

Each year, over 300,000 students apply for this prestigious award and only 100 of the best and brightest in Canada are selected. To be considered, students must “show outstanding community, business or entrepreneurial leadership, and achieve academic excellence”, qualities Aidan radiates through his accomplishments and contributions to the community.

In May 2019, Aidan landed in Halifax to represent British Columbia at the Skills Canada National Competition (SCNC), the only national, multi-trade and technology competition for students and apprentices in the country. Aidan earned his place on this national stage after winning gold at the provincial competition earlier that year.

He joined 550 other competitors inside the Halifax Exhibition Centre as this 4-day national event commenced. Competing in the Web Design and Development division, Aidan’s project would be to develop a website for a Maritime Seafood Restaurant.

When the hosts read out the rules, Aidan was greeted with the unpleasant surprise that competitors are required to use PHP, a programming language he never learned because he had always preferred Node.js, a more modern language he believes works better. “My heart kind of sunk there,” he recalled.

His programming teacher and mentor, Philip Lepine, rushed to speak with the hosts in an attempt to find a solution for Aidan. The judges decided to allow Aidan to compete but he would be disqualified from medal standings. After another conversation the next day, they agreed to let Aidan run as part of the competition but he would be judged solely on the functionality and not the quality of his code. This decision would still cost him 10 marks out of 100 but now, Aidan was now back in the race.

Over the next two days, Aidan soared through the competition, finishing hours earlier than the rest of his competitors, none of whom managed to finish the task in time. “I had been coding for about 7 hours [on the first day] and I didn’t have a single bug. Everything went perfectly. It was amazing,” enthused Aidan. Even with the ten mark knockoff, Aidan now had a winning chance.

Lepine joked over dinner after the second day that if Aidan won this competition, he would get a perfect score in his class. And much to everyone’s surprise, Aidan won first place and a gleaming gold medal tribute to his teacher’s unwavering determination and Aidan’s remarkable skills.

Aidan Eglin with his programming teacher Philip Lepine right after he won the Skills Canada National Competition 2019

As a self-taught programmer, Aidan indulges in these challenging learning opportunities, many of them facilitated by Philip Lepine. “Mr. Lepine has done a lot to support my own learning,” said Aidan, “He’s given me opportunities to teach myself that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” Lepine encourages students to do hands-on work and explore topics that interest them even if they are not explicitly covered in the curriculum, which Aidan believes “could do wonders for [students’] love of learning.” This open-ended approach allowed Aidan to experiment with personal projects like Schooler, a scheduling app he created for his peers who struggled to manage their schedules. 

“Mr. Lepine has done a lot to support my own learning. He’s given me opportunities to teach myself that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

An inside look into the code Aidan wrote for Schooler, his scheduling mobile app

Despite having programming skills well beyond his years, Aidan faced novel challenges with this project. It was his first time building an intricate large-scale mobile application, much less with a technology framework he had never used before. “So naturally, the code was terrible. It was messy. It was hard to read. It wasn’t formatted. It wasn’t put into the proper file structure,” Aidan said. After eight months of work poured into writing 10,000 lines of code, Aidan deleted everything and started from scratch—this time, applying the lessons he gained from his mistakes.

His final product surpassed the original vision of a scheduling app. Schooler allows students to share notes, talk in chat rooms, create events, and view assignments. Since gaining approval from the school board, more than half of his high school has downloaded the app. “It was just an enjoyable experience to write code and have other people use it,” said Aidan.

Having dedicated over 400 hours to this project, Aidan gained not only a new addition to his programming portfolio but an invaluable learning experience he can use and continue to build on. “That’s what I love about programming. There’s always new things and technologies to learn,” said Aidan.

“That’s what I love about programming. There’s always new things and technologies to learn.”

Schooler’s app interface

This excitement to learn carries through to his upcoming studies at UBC. Aidan will be pursuing computer science and astronomy alongside a minor in linguistics, a diverse selection that reflects his multifaceted curiosity. “It just gives me the opportunity to explore far more paths of science and get a deeper understanding of the scientific community. You want to enjoy your university experience and come out as a well-rounded human,” reflected Aidan. He wishes to apply his interdisciplinary education to a field called natural language processing, a branch of artificial intelligence that teaches computers to understand and emulate human communication as seen in features like autocomplete, smart voice assistants, search predictions, among others.

“You want to enjoy your university experience and come out as a well-rounded human.”

Aidan is currently working on a blog with other computer science students to share issues he faced as a self-taught programmer in high school without guidance. He hopes to pass his lessons off to other young self-taught programmers beginning their own learning journeys.

Fiona Lam is the Associate Digital Marketing Analyst at Pearson Canada.

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