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Transforming teens into tomorrow’s tech titans

October 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Forty-five New York City public high school students are taking big strides toward achieving their dreams by learning how to work together on creating fully functional, original cellphone apps with business plans. John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports on how one summer program trains kids to be high-tech entrepreneurs.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: preparing students for the digital economy. A new report out today finds younger Americans fall behind their peers in other industrialized countries when it comes to the math and technical skills needed for the modern workplace.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters looks at a program that tries to address that problem.

MAN: What do you actually think you need to have to be an entrepreneur?

STUDENT: You have to have drive and the willingness to go out there and do what has to be done to achieve your goal.

JOHN TULENKO: These 45 public high school students in New York City are taking big strides toward achieving their dreams.

BRANDON FRASER, student: I want to make the new Facebook, and that’s what I’m going to do.

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JOHN TULENKO: They’re learning how to succeed as high-tech entrepreneurs in a free summer-long program called GenTech NYC.

Competing in teams, they will work to create fully functional, original cell phone apps, with business plans to support them. The program caters to students whose schools or circumstances cannot provide this kind of opportunity.

JORDAN RUNGE, GenTech NYC: We feel it’s incredibly important to be giving these students access.

JOHN TULENKO: Jordan Runge directs the program, a partnership between the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

JORDAN RUNGE: We look at GenTech as being their first step into this kind of larger tech world. And it’s a big step at that, especially for a high school student to make.

MAN: We have a bunch of stuff, and you can see some of it over there.

JOHN TULENKO: Their journey began with a very low-tech challenge.

BRANDON FRASER: They gave us Play-Doh, plates, construction paper, scissors, and a glue stick that didn’t work.

RAJESH RAMKARAN, student: I thought we were going to like work with the tech stuff at first to start with, so when they gave us all the paper bags and everything, I’m like, am I in the right program?

JOHN TULENKO: Their assignment was to create a new product to educate or entertain children ages 8 to 12.

EMILY JUNG, student:And it was really hard, because there are just too many things out already. It’s hard to come up with an idea.

JORDAN RUNGE: A lot of them were kind of taken back. It’s like, wait, you want us to go make something now? Like, I don’t understand. That’s just not what they’re used to. But it’s what this is all about. It’s about creating something. It’s you thinking of it, dreaming it up, and then putting it out there for the world to consume.

All right, ladies and gentleman, if we could have your attention.

JOHN TULENKO: The bigger test of their creativity came the next day, when Jordan Runge announced the program’s central challenge.

JORDAN RUNGE: You will be tasked with creating a mobile app that improves the quality of education or city life for New York City students.

JOHN TULENKO: A $5,000 prize would go to the best app.

JORDAN RUNGE: In terms of expectations…

JOHN TULENKO: And just like a real startup, there were urgent deadlines to meet. Students had just 48 hours to come up with their big idea.

EMILY JUNG: Before I went to bed, I would, like, put my clipboard next to my bed in case any inspiration came to me in the middle of the night.

JOHN TULENKO: From the get-go, GenTech pushed its students to test their ideas. Instead of guesswork, they conducted surveys and crunched the data to determine which of their evolving apps had the most traction.

STUDENT: Would like to be able to talk with your peers and interact with them?

JOHN TULENKO: They were also required to share their ideas.

JORDAN RUNGE: We had an entrepreneur kind of speed dating round, where they had to get some feedback about their ideas.

STUDENT: If you were to make a study guide, would you follow it?

JORDAN RUNGE: Some people say, well, I don’t want folks to steal my idea, so I can’t talk about it. Well, no, like, you should talk about it, because that’s how you figure out if it’s a good idea or not. And, like, one, that’s what you do. But, second of all, that’s how you get people on board with you. Like, if you want to build a team around an idea, you have got to talk to people to get them on board.

JOHN TULENKO: Time was also devoted to learning to code and to something often overlooked by teens.

MAN: The way you present yourself is extremely important, and, of course, we’re going to start off with your dress. Look behind me on this smartboard.

BRANDON FRASER: When he first pulled up that first slide, I’m, like, oh, lord, we’re going to have to be MacGyver and make our own suits today.

MAN: You have to make sure you look the part, because, sadly, we’re going to judge you.

MAN: So I managed to survive three grueling rounds of venture financing. This is super, super hard.

JOHN TULENKO: Dress codes were not enforced upon start-up CEOs, who came in each day to share their success stories.

Most of them look like they have just come back from the beach.

JORDAN RUNGE: Yes, it’s something that we tell kids, because kids will — they will go to a — we will go to a tech company, and, oh, but they were all in jeans and a T-shirt. So, that’s great, because they earned their spot to be there in jeans and a T-shirt.

You’re a high school student. To show people you’re serious, you can’t look like high school students. Dress in business casual.

So today is the culmination of this first week and all the work that you have been doing.

JOHN TULENKO: All this while, the students had been working on their big idea for an app, for which they prepared a 90-second pitch.

STUDENT: My app is called Fast Plan.

JOHN TULENKO: For the next hour, students would put it all on the line.

STUDENT: Technology is taking over the world.

STUDENT: There are three key features.

STUDENT: Just lock in your account.

STUDENT: That — why my app is so amazing.

(APPLAUSE)

JORDAN RUNGE: We have now heard everybody’s pitches. So now is the fun part. Now you’re going to be forming into teams.

JOHN TULENKO: Students scrambled to either build a team around their own idea or join someone else’s.

What happened in your case?

EMILY JUNG: Well, it’s more like people wanted to join me, but I didn’t realize that they wanted to do their idea. It was just like a pitch fight all over again.

JOHN TULENKO: When all the dust had settled, there were nine teams competing for the $5,000 prize. Rajesh’s team served up Mealr, which offers teens healthy recipes and rewards smart food choices with digital badges. Competitors’ reaction?

STUDENT: I’m a teen. I don’t have to worry about my diet.

JOHN TULENKO: Brandon’s team, NYC Loop, aims to be the go-to place for teens in search of things to do in New York City.

EMILY JUNG: I wouldn’t really download it, because for groups like that, I usually just use Facebook to create an event.

JOHN TULENKO: And Emily’s team will offer up EmpireBash, dazzlingly multiplayer games that teach New York City history.

JORDAN RUNGE: So, my kind of — the overarching kind of thought on all of the students’ apps is that they’re all going to have to narrow down whatever it is that they have even further into really kind of one core component.

JOHN TULENKO: To take the apps to the next level, GenTech brought the students to the pros. Volunteer mentors from the tech sector were paired with each team. They’d meet twice a week for six weeks at companies like AppNexus, Microsoft, and Google. At EmpireBash, the mini-game app, mentor Kristin Bond was eager to get started.

KRISTIN BOND, GenTech NYC mentor: I like working with kids, and I thought this was such a cool program that they’re getting the opportunity to learn to code at this age.

JOHN TULENKO: But bond got a surprise when she asked her team about the features they wanted to build.

EMILY JUNG: How do you unlock a force field?

STUDENT: The robots, they have keys to unlock the force field.

KRISTIN BOND:  Yes, that’s a thought.

When they told me what they wanted to do, my first reaction was, oh.

KRISTIN BOND:  I mean, it’s robots. It’s in the future.

It seemed really ambitious to me, not an app that we can build.

MAN: The problem with the whole recipe thing is…

JOHN TULENKO: Across the room, Mealr, the healthy eating app, was getting grilled.

RAJESH RAMKARAN: We have five mentors. Each and every one of them attacked us on each — it’s like one by one.

MAN: Sounds pretty good.

JOHN TULENKO: It was a different story at NYC Loop, the teen events calendar.

BRANDON FRASER: Our mentors were pretty supportive of the idea. They just told, like, the realness of what was going to actually happen.

JOHN TULENKO: What do you hear about EmpireBash?

(LAUGHTER)

BRANDON FRASER: They changed their idea, like, seven times, right? I think they’re just scrambling for things to do at this point.

EMILY JUNG: We’re like adding like robots and aliens and force fields. There were like too many mixed ideas.

KRISTIN BOND:  I don’t want to stifle their creativity. I don’t want to tell them that their ideas aren’t going to work, because that’s not what this program is about.

What do you think?

So we’re trying to just ask questions to let them really think about what would be a good idea and what would be feasible.

JOHN TULENKO: It took three weeks, but Emily’s team finally landed on an achievable idea, InspyerU, a scaled-down mystery game for teaching math.

EMILY JUNG: We’re finally all on the same page. We can’t change the idea now.

(LAUGHTER)

EMILY JUNG: I’m serious.

JOHN TULENKO: But, in all this time, her competitors had raced ahead.

RAJESH RAMKARAN: Everything is sliding perfectly. So we’re just going to keep on going until it’s competition time.

WOMAN: The first finalist to present tonight is Mealr. Please welcome Mealr to the stage.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHN TULENKO: Judging took place in September. Only one team would walk away with the $5,000 prize.

WOMAN: The winner is SproutEd.

JOHN TULENKO: Our teams were the runners-up, a come-from-behind second, third place, and fourth. They didn’t win the $5,000, but they were rewarded.

JORDAN RUNGE: I hope that when they look back on this summer, they will say to themselves, wow, I did something I didn’t think that I could do. And I’m very excited to see what happens after this as they continue to learn.

JOHN TULENKO: For these young men and women, the journey has just begun.