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Want to boost students’ tech skills? There’s an app class for that

“Have you ever worried about lost papers?” Steffany Ceron read from a notecard to three fellow students powwowing in a semicircle of desks. “Well don’t worry, this app can help.”

Ceron and her peers were among a half-dozen groups of high school students feverishly preparing to present their ideas for mobile phone applications designed to help students stay organized, prepare for exams, or make clothing and food choices. Together, the 29 students are enrolled in New York City’s Generation Technology, a fledgling summer program that teaches city high school students how to design and market apps that solve common educational problems.

Over two weeks this August, the students — who range from native New Yorkers with experience building digital tools to recent immigrants — are receiving a crash course in digital entrepreneurship, funded by the city’s Economic Development Corporation. The program represents one prong of the Bloomberg administration’s recent push to remake New York City into a technology hub to rival California’s Silicon Valley. Like the computer engineering-themed school that’s set to open next month, Generation Tech aims to seed technology talent locally by investing in city students.

During the day-long classes, the students review a manual on entrepreneurship, calculate the costs and benefits of various business models, and listen to lectures from the founders of local technology start-ups such as Kickstarter. The class is fast-paced and packed with group presentations and discussion questions designed to get students thinking creatively about business: What is the lifetime value of a New York Times subscriber to the company? How would you help a rapper promote a show in Queens?

To be eligible, students must come from a low-income family or attend a school where at least half of students come from low-income families. Only a few of the participants had experience creating mobile apps before this summer, and many said the program also marked their first time practicing public speaking.

“This is the kind of stuff that you don’t learn in school, so that’s a big bonus of the program,” said Sara Elhachimi, a 10th-grader at Townsend Harris High School. “A lesson we had on the first day was about networking and how important that is, like to have a firm handshake and good posture. Of course some of that is common sense, but to reinforce that here is really cool.”

Elhachimi’s first brush with coding came in fifth grade, when she taught herself basic HTML to customize her profile on a gaming website called Neopets. When it was her turn to stand in front of the rows of desks and pitch her app idea, she described an age-old student problem.

“So you’ve just gotten back from six hours of school,what’s the first thing you do—your homework, right?” she said, glancing up from a notecard. “No. You’re hungry, so you have to eat.”

But students don’t usual eat dinner for several hours after school gets out, Elhachami said, so students might be tempted to eat unhealthy but easy to prepare snacks. As a solution, she proposed an app that would track students’ food habits and suggest healthy meals they could create using food around their house.

“People who have foods planned out are healthier in the long run,” she added.

NYC Generation Tech is being run by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, an organization that teaches students about forming businesses, and is funded by the city’s Economic Development Corporation. The program, whose participants will continue to meet through the fall, culminates in a competition with a cash prize for the best app.

Jordan Runge, the program director, said his goal is to help students view technological experimentation as within their reach.

“We want to show students that you do have the potential to actually start a tech based business because the barrier entry is so low and the climate in the city is really favorable right now to starting new things,” he said. “We want to give them the basics of the entrepreneurship piece and expose them to as many different aspects of the tech sector that they could eventually be pursing as they become adults.”

To apply, students were required to submit three essays introducing themselves and describing their interest in the program. Because of the tight timeline for creating the program, which the EDC only started developing in February, Runge said the NFTE spread the word of available slots through schools where the organization already works with students and runs business competitions. But Runge said NYC Generation Tech is able to do much more with students than school-year programs.

“A  lot of the schools that we work in, with free and reduced lunch rates of 50 percent or more, don’t have the tech infrastructure there to support programs like this,” he said. “The city itself is moving in that direction in terms of entrepreneurship, and how could you teach entrepreneurship without really teaching the tech aspect of it?”

Some of the students said they had only received technology related instruction at their schools through NFTE, while others said they would be able to take traditional computer science classes once they reach 11th or 12th grade.

Over the first week of the program, Runge told students to think about perennial student problems that technology could ease. After they each gave two-minute long presentations, he encouraged students with similar ideas to work together, and told the rest to be assertive about convincing their peers to abandon their individual ideas and form groups around a handful of the best ideas.

Most of the students pitched projects to help others stay organized, for example by by using phone cameras to take and save pictures of class notes and handouts, or by using voice recognition software to take notes for the students. Others ran the gamut from an app to let students discuss personal problems with their peers anonymously, a map of fun city events for the under-18 crowd, and an app that would wake its user up with an alarm timed to the buses and trains en route to school.

As they wrapped for lunch, most of the students didn’t waste any time trying to convince others to abandon their plans and form alliances with them, some even agreeing to meld product ideas together.

Jose Reynoso, a 10th-grader from Manhattan’s High School of Economics and Finance, was quick to pitch his app for creating a personal stock portfolio to two students standing behind him in the line to grab food. They were Harry Trustman and Adam Israfil, who both envisioned book reviewing programs and had already vowed to pair up.

It was a hard sell.

“This app helps people,” Reynoso said about his own program. “How are you helping people?”

“We’re helping people raise their reading levels,” Israfil said.

“But most kids don’t want to read. Books are boring,” Reynoso replied. He asked them to consider joining his project instead, with the promise that it would help them make money. But Israfil balked.

“I like your idea, but it’s not targeting a specific group, it’s really broad,” he said.

With that, they shook hands and the boys turned to the spread of wraps and cookies. Reynoso scanned the room and set off for another table of lunching app builders.