“It’s pretty safe to say we’re all geeks here,” said Xavier Suarez, a particularly self-aware 16-year-old from Brooklyn, gesturing to a classroom full of fresh-faced fellow high school students. Betabeat had trekked down to Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus for the first pitch presentation of NYC Generation Tech—a new initiative by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship to provide mentorship for disadvantaged high school students interested in technology.
The program, which is still in pilot phase, consists of a two-week summer bootcamp followed by a series of weeknight meetings in the fall, hosted at the local offices of top tech companies like Facebook, NASDAQ and Warby Parker. The 30 accepted students work in teams to develop a mobile app prototype using MIT App Inventor, targeted at other New York City students.
To be eligible for the program, students must be entering grades 9-11 in the fall, have a minimum 3.0 GPA and 90 percent attendance in school. They also either have to qualify for free or reduced lunch or attend a school where more than 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. In December, the students will demo and pitch their finished apps and business plans to a panel of judges and venture capitalists for a $5,000 cash prize.
Last Friday, the halfway mark of the summer bootcamp, each student pitched their own rudimentary app idea to an audience of their peers. Jordan Runge, the head instructor of NYC Generation Tech, told Betabeat that the first week, students got an introduction to technology and entrepreneurship, brainstorming grievances and inconveniences that they could address in an app. That day, after pitching, the students were instructed to form teams of four or five based on the similarity of their app. Over the next week, each team will decide on the best app idea to pursue for the remainder of the program.
In the LIU classroom, students pitched with idealistic enthusiasm, describing apps clearly designed to solve problems they encounter in their own lives. Topics like homework, grades, after school snacks and “time management” were raised repeatedly, and a large number of pitches involved creating personalized schedules to help students manage various commitments, especially while staying on top of school work.
Mona Barry, 16, bemoaned the inconvenience of not knowing your grade in a class until report cards, and explained that her app would alert students when their grade was in danger of falling below a certain standard. Other pitches involved instant messaging systems to enhance communication between students and teachers (“Isn’t it awkward to friend your teachers on Facebook?” asked one of the students) as well as support groups for teenagers suffering from bullying and depression.
Harry Trustman, a 15-year-old from Brooklyn, addressed summer reading grievances, marketing his app “Bookmark” as a solution to “a summer reading list filled with books you’ve never heard of.” His app aims to improve on the customer reviews on sites like Amazon, which, in his experience, can’t be trusted. “I bought Twilight based on positive reviews, but it was terrible!” he exclaimed.
“Bookmark” would enable users to fill out a taste profile, read reviews written by peers with similar taste, and connect with students who have already read the book—a step up from Sparknotes, Mr. Trustman claimed, asserting that the study-site didn’t really answer questions and was ultimately “just another thing to read.”
Mr. Trustman wasn’t the only student to invoke the fallibility of user reviews. Many students noted that many sites require users to be 18 to provide reviews, and designed their apps to allow teenage users to access relevant reviews from written by peers.
Jose R., a sophomore from Queens, gave perhaps the most eccentric pitch, which he described as an “easy-to-use stock simulator.”
“What I need to do is make people rich,” he said, explaining that since, “Most people don’t know how to pick stocks . . . this app is for anyone who wants to learn how to make money and has the Internet—so, pretty much everyone.”
NYC Generation Tech is one of the first tech mentorship programs designed for high school students, with the aim of exposing these concepts to a more diverse group. Ron Summers, an instructor in the program, said that he finds the students’s eagerness and inexperience to be a great advantage. “Instead of thinking, I can’t do it, I don’t have those skills, they’re willing to just try it out,” he said.
Mr. Runge, the head instructor, echoed these sentiments, admitting that he actually finds it easier to work with younger students on tech projects than with adults. “You have a bunch of students who are interested in these topics, but they never really know how it works or they never realized they could be part of the creation process,” Mr. Runge said. “We get to illuminate the fact that ‘No, you can be, you’re just like anyone else and you can do whatever you want and here’s how you do it.’”
“The big difference between working with adults is that [for high schoolers] we really have to fast-track their learning to get them to a place where they can have the language and background knowledge and context so they can even talk about this,” Mr. Runge said, calling the program fairly fast-paced.
After the pitch presentation, Mr. Trustman and his new team members reflected on the first half of their experience. “The week was really awesome,” Mr. Trustman said, recounting the field trip to Makerbot the day before. “I think yesterday was my favorite because we got to make 3D sculptures of ourselves,” he explained. “And we saw 3D printers in action!” Mr. Suarez interjected excitedly. The students were also visited by a number of guest speakers from the tech industry, including Jared Cohen, the director of Operations at Kickstarter.
The boys told Betabeat they were more nervous about time constraints than creating a prototype of the app. “It’s like, I’m going to have fun, but at the same time the deadline is a week around the corner,” Mr. Suarez confided.
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