Student Tech Camp Offers A Glimpse Into The World Of Silicon Valley

By Julio Ojeda-Zapata
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Some very lucky teens are taking part in a unique tech camp this summer, conceived by a husband-wife team who work at Google. Silicon North Stars helps students gain confidence by assisting them with their own tech startup ideas. The program’s marquee event is a weeklong tour of the fabled Silicon Valley headquarters of Google, Facebook and GoPro.

Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Ameer Storay has been learning to code and create video games — “not the complex stuff, but the basics,” the eighth-grader said.

Maihoua Xiong, another eighth-grader, has a passion for drawing and animation and wants “to learn new things, even if it’s hard!”

Adelaide Ravensborg said she is set on working in tech. “Whether it’s programming or building, it’s what I want to do,” she said.

The three Twin Cities students, and 13 other tech-focused teens, are this week headed to Silicon Valley on what promises to be an adventure of a lifetime — and possibly a launching pad for future careers.

They are part of a program in its third year called Silicon North Stars, which is a sort of tech camp conceived by Northfield native Steve Grove and his Iowa-born wife Mary, who both now work at tech giant Google.

The program’s marquee event is a weeklong tour of the fabled Silicon Valley headquarters of Google, Facebook and GoPro, the creator of action-focused video cameras.

The kids are looking to gain confidence by conceiving their own technology startups, and even pitching them to adults during the California trip.

Grove said he created Silicon North Stars to give “younger people from underserved communities exposure to jobs, careers and technology early in their academic careers to see where they end up.”

The Groves conceived of Silicon North Stars as a nonprofit that is not affiliated with Google. Grove is Google’s News Lab director, while Mary runs the Google for Entrepreneurs program, but the two wanted to fashion something apart, and new.

“Our roots are in the Midwest,” Grove stressed. “So we thought it would be fun to connect with where we came from and work on a project outside of Google.”

Above all, he said, they wanted to give back.

Their initial idea was to host a bunch of smart, talented teens for two days, but that turned into a week. It “felt like a good period of time to build out programming,” Grove noted. The couple later expanded the camp further to incorporate Minnesota activities throughout the year, along with the core Silicon Valley excursion.

First, they needed a home base. The found one at CoCo, the network of coworking offices with separate locations in Minneapolis’ and St. Paul’s downtowns. Then they required access to some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley tech, such as YouTube, which is part of Google. This was not a problem for two prominent Googlers with many contacts.

The Groves were precise and equitable in picking students for the camp: 16 eighth-graders; eight boys, eight girls; eight from Minneapolis and eight from St. Paul. Most are students of color, which is intentional in a tech industry that is seen as white-dominated.

In St. Paul, the Groves teamed up with Washington Technology Magnet School along with Humboldt High School’s Academy of Information Technology. Maihoua Xiong, the kid with a passion for animation, attends Washington.

Students don’t pay for the experience, and expenses for their participation are defrayed by individual donations and via grants from foundations and corporations. Silicon North Stars also launched a couple of Indiegogo crowdfunding campaigns that raised $11,210 and $10,599 each.

Camp curricula in part involves visiting (or being visited by) local technology companies like JAMF Software and Visual, both based in Minneapolis.

Visual specializes in creating virtual-reality content for a range of clients. Co-founder Chuck Olsen said the technology looked to be a hit with the tech campers when he stopped by CoCo not long ago.

“I was recovering from the flu and not on top of my game, but the kids were super curious about VR and obviously very smart,” said Olsen, who had them try on Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR goggles.

“Later, one of the kids contacted me to ask me how he could get into the field of VR, and maybe work at Visual someday,” Olsen said. “For me, it’s an honor to have someone say this. I want my company to be worthy of having someone want to work there.”

This year’s Silicon North Stars campers — the third such batch of students since the camp started — are due to board a plane for Silicon Valley Sunday.

And, if the last two such excursions are any indication, the trip looks to be a blast for all concerned, including four chaperones accompanying the students.

The week will begin with an intensive series of lectures, tours, discussions and group activities at companies around the San Francisco Bay Area, and will end with a group exercise that will have the teens pair up to pitch their own technology startups.

CoCo co-founder Kyle Coolbroth, one of the chaperones during last year’s trip, said he marveled at the changes he saw in the kids as they formulated their pitches.

“You are an eighth-grader, and you start in this place of total insecurity,” Coolbroth said. But as he watched the kids fashion and deliver the pitches, “I watched the transformation of these students from insecurity to command a stage presence. They’re passionate about something, and they are owning it.

“It was incredible to sit there that night, and breathtaking to see the students pitch,” Coolbroth said. “For me, that is the ultimate moment.”

And it doesn’t end there. Silicon North Stars is structured in such a way that the kids will periodically return to CoCo for activities — and these are open not only to the current class but also to past ones.

Silicon North Stars alumni are “starting to mentor the younger students,” Coolbroth said. “I’ve seen that start to happen this year for the first time.”

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