TOWAMENCIN — A North Penn High School senior is drawing national attention for an app that he and two classmates spent more than a year perfecting.
Neelay Velingker will be heading to Washington, D.C. in May to present "Kolb Library," an app that has a long backstory, plenty of recognition, and a unique name.
"It was so unintentional. It was just a lighthearted joke at first, and it just kind of stuck. One of the key sticking points of our presentation was, we call it 'Kolb Library' and we don't give any background as to why," said Neelay.
"And at the very end of our presentation, we give our acknowledgements; we shout out Mrs. Westerlund, and our library, and finally we shout out Mr. Kolb, our programming teacher, and we can tell on the judges' faces, they realize what it means," he said.
High school business teacher Linda Westerlund and math teacher Ryan Kolb were part of the team, and school librarian Joseph Ramsey is the name that Neelay and classmates Chris Seiler and Tejas Priyadarshi, both 2018 NPHS graduates, use when developing and demonstrating the app. They first had the idea in November 2017 to build an online library app for that year's Future Business Leaders of America club competition, and the trio took that basic guideline and ran with it.
"The topic for the competition was to build a library app, which could handle different types of users; it could handle, and scale to, books that would be put in the library, and a basic checkout and reserve system," Neelay said.
"We did a lot of research into modern data structure, and server and client connections, things along those lines — emerging, state of the art methodologies, and technologies," he said.
Seiler was in charge of developing and maintaining their server, while Priyadarshi handled the database and Neelay developed the app. They used Java as the programming language, Amazon Web Services and Google Drive to host everything, building a database that could run 24/7 and that users could log into using Google accounts, or personalized ones built just for the app.
"You even called Google too," said Westerlund, and Neelay said that call happened when they found a bug in a Google library while trying to build out their own.
"That impressed me, that they knew what resources to go to. If I would've run into a problem with Google, I wouldn't have thought 'Call Google,' but they knew what resources to look to," she said.
The Kolb Library app he developed lets users search the actual database of books in the high school library, provided by Ramsey, and request a checkout that an administrator would then approve. The app was far from a finished product when the three presented it at the FBLA state competition in April 2018, and the three encountered another unexpected problem when presenting.
"The projector that was in the room for our presentation, wouldn't actually connect to our computer. We ended up just giving our presentation on our laptop, in front of the three judges in the room, and the audience too," he said.
"Everybody was looking at this small, 13-inch screen. It was kind of nerve-wracking — we thought we had lost at that point, so we were kind of just preparing to accept whatever (rank) we got."
That presentation earned the trio a second place at the state FBLA competition, which let them submit the app in May 2018 to qualify for nationals in Baltimore, and several more weeks of hard work perfecting the app.
"During that interval, we completely redesigned the UI (user interface), we fixed all of the hidden fallacies, the internals of the application, we really put together our best effort," he said.
"If we had gotten first place at states, we never would have put in the same amount of effort. If we had gotten first, we would've thought 'We have it in the bag,' so I think that second place was definitely the greatest motivator," Neelay said.
After several more weeks of late nights — Neelay estimated about 100 more hours of work, Westerlund said it felt like 100 per week — the three presented at the national competition in early July 2018.
"We would have to upload things on Dropbox, and I had to do it because I was their adviser. It was due at 11:59 p.m., and they were literally calling me at 11:40 saying, 'OK, we got it, here it is," Westerlund said.
"At 11:50, I felt like I'm having a heart attack, waiting for them to get this to me, because if we missed submitting it, they were out. Both times, they did that, and I told them, 'Please don't do that again,'" she said.
Fellow FBLA club members from North Penn came along to cheer and support the team, and even went out and got breakfast for the trio so they could keep rehearsing their presentation.
"It was really great to know that the other people in the club from North Penn, were not only striving to be successful themselves, but also actively encouraging their peers," Neelay said.
"We're so lucky — it's a great group of kids," Westerlund added.
That presentation went off flawlessly, and fit within their seven-minute window, as the North Penn three found themselves among the finalists on stage against teams from Silicon Valley, Washington D.C., and Cupertino, the home of Apple Computers.
"They called tenth place, ninth place, eighth place, and they're still standing," Westerlund said.
"It's down to just us and Cupertino, and they called out second place, and we realized we won, and it was just pure happiness at that point. It was partly disbelief, it was happiness, and pride for what we had accomplished," Neelay said.
As they started work on their next app for this year's FBLA competition, Kolb told the students about the "Congressional App Challenge," a national competition meant to inspire students in computer science and related fields. Neelay and Kolb Library were chosen by a panel that included U.S. Congressman Brendan Boyle, D-13th, as one of only six students in Pennsylvania, and 200 from across the country, that will be recognized at a "House of Code" reception in Washington and have their app displayed in the U.S. Capitol building in May.
"I'll be presenting the app to congressmen on Capitol Hill. My hope is that, while I'm there, I can hopefully shed some light on the support of public libraries," Neelay said.
"I think it's a great cause, and this competition has definitely given me the platform, so it would be great to speak with congressmen about the funding of public libraries, and to continue building new ones," he said.
Neelay said he grew up reading every book he could find at the Horsham Township Library, and hopes to help make a difference for future young readers.
"That's my main goal. If I can change just one congressman's perspective on that, it would be 100 percent worth it. I think that would probably be more important than anything I've done so far," he said.
After the trip to Washington, Neelay said, he hopes this year's FBLA competition will stretch into summer again, and he's waiting for college applications to come back with good results. The victories last year also helped him get into a research group at the University of Pennsylvania, a web development competition working with Lockheed Martin, and publish a paper on how to program phones to save energy in developing countries.
"None of this would've been possible without Mrs. Westerlund. She's helped us more than we could have ever thought to ask: letting us stay in the classroom late at night, whatever we needed — she's done more than we could ever expect," he said.
Westerlund said she's been impressed by not only the technical skills, but also the teamwork: the first time she saw the final presentation at nationals, it was so well-rehearsed she couldn't tell who was clicking on the screen as they showed off their app.
"I couldn't see which one was clicking, and they had it all recorded, so it was on a video being played. The app would open and close, and they were all talking, and they had the timing down to the second. I was so impressed," Westerlund said.
"I can't reiterate enough how lucky I've been. These kids are absolutely amazing. I've always said, I don't go to these things, they take me to these things," she said.