Watch Out Silicon Valley: Here Come the Tinkering Teens
By Kyle Palmer
Entrepreneurs are getting younger and younger these days. Just a few weeks ago, more than 100 high school and college students converged on a warehouse in Bellevue, Washington, with one mission: to build a marketable mobile app in less than 24 hours.
By all accounts, this convening is an encouraging sign of youth exercising their creativity, technical skills, and compunction to build something on their own — without a blueprint or instructions. For these tinkerers, the experience is arguably more educational than anything they could do at school.
Brandon Ramirez, a sophomore at nearby Bellevue College, said the energy at the event—called Code Day and sponsored by Seattle-based nonprofit StudentRND—was palpable. “Whether you know how to do something or not, when you have 24 hours, you have to figure it out,” he said. “You learn a lot.”
“The students who are successful are the ones who just go out and figure a problem out,” says Edward Jiang, a University of Washington Computer Science major and the founder of StudentRND. “A lot of the students who come here say it’s way better than school because they’re actually making things.”
Ramirez paired up with fellow Bellevue College student Kieran Brusewitz to create a mobile game called “Slide” with which players move colored blocks around on the screen trying to form lines against a ticking clock. Other participants at Code Day judged “Slide” to be “the most likely to sell” of all the apps made at the event, which stretched to 35 hours.
“It was really hard at first,” Ramirez said. “When you have that little time, you really have to plan everything out step by step.”
The students’ hard work might pay off in literal ways. The goal is to get Slide, along with other creations made in StudentRND’s Bellevue warehouse, to actually sell in the real world, possibly launching their creators into the fast-paced tech startup industry.
That’s one of the goals of the organization, says Jiang. “We just want to give students space and resources to help them build cool stuff,” he said.
“A lot of the students who come here say it’s way better than school because they’re actually making things.”
Founded in 2010, StudentRND has quickly become a popular destination for teenage tinkerers in the Seattle area. The organization—which receives funding form Google, AT&T, and Microsoft among others—offers up use of its 3,500-square foot warehouse for free to students who want to use it. The place sounds like a budding scientist’s dream-come-true: laser cutters, woodworking tools, soldering irons, oscilloscopes (used to observe electrical frequencies), audio/visual studios, and iPhone development labs are just some of the things young creators have at their disposal.
In the past year, tinkering teens at the StudentRND warehouse have produced an automatic door lock that can be opened via a user’s Twitter account, a robotic pipe organ made of PVC pipes and steel tubes, and a so-called plasma speaker, which plays music via an arc of super-charged electrical energy (check out the video of this on YouTube).
The high-school inventors of the plasma speaker have already sold $18,000 worth of kits, so other tinkerers can assemble their design.
Now, StudentRND plans to host an eight-week “Incubator” workshop this summer, with the intent of producing more “amazing stuff”.
“A lot of students have the mentality, ‘I don’t know how to do something,’” Jiang said, “but the mentality needs to be, ‘I don’t know how to do something, but I can go out and learn how to do it.’”
StudentRND has begun taking applications for the workshop, which will be hosted at the Bellevue warehouse. Jiang said he hopes to receive applications from beyond Washington and is prioritizing team proposals.
“We really think that if you have a great team with students who are motivated and passionate, they will turn any idea they touch into gold,” he said. “Skills and ideas come after having a good mix of people.”
As with StudentRND’s past Code Day events, Jiang said he hopes the summer Incubator is another chance for young creators to show off their skills to tech-savvy entrepreneurs and established companies.
“In the past, we have had Facebook people and Microsoft reps at our events,” Jiang said. “Kids want to be the next Bill Gates, the next Steve Jobs. This is a chance for them to work on that idea that gives them a chance to start a business.”