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Santa Monica Youth Tech Program Wins Harvard Bright Ideas Designation

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 20, 2015 -- A six-week program that offers high-tech training for Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District teens at local start-up incubators  has been chosen as one of  124 “Bright Ideas” by the Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Santa Monica officials announced Thursday.

Santa Monica’s Youth Tech program is now entering its fourth year, and growing in size as more startups in the area learn of its existence and want to participate.

“Youth Tech helps local high school students prepare to compete for lucrative careers in the Silicon Beach technology sector,” Jory Wolf, chief information officer for the program, said in a statement.

The “Bright Ideas” designation singles out programs that use creative, innovative methods to deal with such familiar issues as revitalizing local economies, disaster response and preparedness, community policing and outdated infrastructure.

Santa Monica’s program is a partnership between the city of Santa Monica, the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) and local technology companies.

Aimed at high school teens as well as recent graduates, the Youth Tech Program offers an up-close look at – and work within -- the technology sector.

Wolf said the students learn what is required to form a start-up company, beginning the process with a week behind the scenes shadowing city IT staff. In that phase, they learn how technology is used for public safety, improving traffic conditions, keeping busses running on time and managing a variety of other city functions.

Students configure switching hardware, design network architecture, learn to work with databases and with virtualization and storage trends, developed strategies and also engage in a “scrum session” coding with city web developers, he said.

He said they spend the next five weeks learning startup methods and working with entrepreneurs, designers and developers. This is the period during which they create a “socially responsible” business concept, one ready to pitch to venture capitalists and angel investors by the end of the program.

Mornings are filled with talks with experts, leading to afternoon work sessions where the team applies their new knowledge, Wolf said.

The program ends with “Pitch Night,” where students try to pitch ideas to a panel of judges, which includes venture capitalists and civic leaders.

Wolf said one of his favorite pitches was last year, for “Odd Spots,” a GPS-enable app that could guide users to places of historical of unusual value – like, for instance, the Museum of Flying at the Santa Monica Airport.
“I am always impressed by the ideas and project development that we see on pitch night,” Wolf said. “Our students set a standard of excellence that makes us proud.”

Only a small number of students are selected to participate in the program; those attending in their senior year are paired with mentors and invited to return after their freshman year in college for an internship with a Santa Monica tech company.

This year, 35 teens were selected for the program. It started with 14 but as grown as more startups have come forward with offers of space.

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