Parker freshman wins top prize in design thinking challenge aimed at solving San Diego’s transportation issues

D.J. Nelson, Class of 2021, was part of a group of high school students who took home the grand prize in a sophisticated design challenge aimed at solving complex city problems through design thinking.

Design for San Diego’s 2017 Civic Challenge asked competitors to solve mobility issues in the city of San Diego, addressing four main challenge areas: walkability and bikeability, accessibility, commuter experience, and autonomous vehicles. The grand prize winners received $5,000 and the top three teams will have the opportunity to pitch their ideas directly to the City of San Diego, SANDAG, and the private equity firm SCALE SD.  

D.J. and his team members, two students from Canyon Crest Academy, were one of the few high-school-aged students to enter the competition, which was dominated by professional and college-level designers. Their team, Cycle Detection, is a member of The League of Amazing Programmers, a nonprofit that teaches professional-level programming to children and teens. The League entered five teams in the design challenge, all comprised of high school students; two of those teams, including D.J.’s, took home top honors.

Cycle Detection tackled walkability and bikeability issues in San Diego, answering the question, “How can we make bicycles more visible to cars of the future?” To do this, the team designed small, wireless transponders that allow bicycles and cars to communicate with each other on the road using technology already enabled in today’s smart cars.

The transponders attach to bicycles and send signals to smart cars on the road, allowing those cars to detect the bicycle from far away and around corners. The smart cars can react to the bicycles by flashing a light on the dashboard or even braking for the driver.

D.J. and his team members will soon meet with the city and other stakeholders to pitch their idea and potentially implement the technology in real life.

When asked how it felt to win such a prestigious award, D.J. said it was incredible but unexpected.

“Most of the teams were business professionals. They were there because it was their job. I did it for the experience of using design thinking. It was amazing just to be a finalist,” he said.

Becky Deller, Director of Community Engagement for The League of Amazing Programmers, lauded the students’ ability to design advanced solutions for today’s toughest challenges.

“I knew the students could hold their own, but I had no idea one of the League’s five teams might win!” said Deller. “The judges were surprised to learn the age of The League’s student entrants, and praised them for their poise and intelligence.”

For more information about the League of Amazing Programmers, visit:

Design for San Diego was created by UC San Diego’s Design Lab team with support from the National Science Foundation, Design Forward Alliance, and SCALE SD. For more information about the Civic Challenge, visit:
Francis Parker School is a private, independent, coeducational, college preparatory day school for students in Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12 from across San Diego County. Founded in 1912, the Lower School is located on the Mission Hills Campus with the Upper and Middle Schools on the Linda Vista Campus. Parker's mission is to inspire a diverse community of independent thinkers whose academic excellence, global perspective and strength of character prepare them to make a meaningful difference in the world.

Mission Hills Campus Lower School

4201 Randolph Street
San Diego, CA 92103

Linda Vista Campus Middle/Upper School

6501 Linda Vista Road
San Diego, CA 92111
858 / 569-7900