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High Tech U: Teaching Kids Marketable Skills in the Heart of Silicon Valley

Many of the students who come through the program have had trouble finding their place at their schools or in other extracurricular activities

By C. Annie Greene

Arman Dezfoli-Arjomandi has clear memories of sitting on his father’s lap as a young child while his dad worked diligently on the computer. He remembers being amazed by what he saw on the screen in front of him.

Dezfoli-Arjomandi was only six years old when he got his very own computer and by the age of 10, he began learning how to program it.

In high school, he and a partner started a project they coined The Falco Initiative, and as a team, they released two of their own smart phone applications.

That was in 2010. Fast-forward to 2012: One of those applications hit No.1 on Apple’s downloads ranking, according to Dezfoli-Arjomandi, after 4.4 million people downloaded it worldwide.

Dezfoli-Arjomandi isn’t the only kid to have taken an early interest in technology. In a world that is rapidly growing more dependent upon all sorts of high tech equipment, it is little surprise that more young people share an affinity for it.

Dezfoli-Arjomandi ’s early success, though, can’t simply be attributed to his dad’s lap or his first computer. He says he spent years building a skill base. Starting at the age of seven, Dezfoli-Arjomandi  attended computer technology camps and programs each summer until he was 15.

Technology camps and programs like the ones Dezfoli-Arjomandi attended can be found throughout the Bay Area and in cities all over the country. More popular than ever, these programs provide students who have an interest in technology with the real-life application they need to develop their interest into more than just a hobby.

The programs supply young students with useful guidance to help them narrow their focus, and help them advance their skills. “When you are really young, you learn how to make a movie or do things heavily assisted by software or people,” Dezfoli-Arjomandi explained. “It is once you’re a little older that you start learning how to do more advanced things like program.”

And program he did.

Dezfoli-Arjomandi ’s most successful smart phone application, a game called Slide, has made both him and his partner a fair amount of cash.

Fact is, there is money to be made in application design.

The developers decide how they want to market their application and at what price. Students like Dezfoli-Arjomandi, who began sharpening their skill base at a younger age, have the leg up on the competition.

SEMI High Tech U is an offshoot of a non-profit high tech organization called SEMI that offers that leg up to students. Based in Sunnyvale, the organization offers free classes and training to high school students.

Lisa Anderson, SEMI's founder, explained that highly skilled volunteers teach the classes. “They don’t just teach, though,” she said. They “talk to the kids about their jobs, where they went to school, and the challenges they’ve overcome.”

Anderson explained that many of the students who come through the program have had trouble finding their place at their schools or in other extracurricular activities. The volunteer instructors can be helpful because they often overcame challenges themselves.

"Once we had a student who was going to an alternative school,” Anderson said. “The school only had 28 students in total. The student was smart but didn’t always do so well socially. He came to our program last year and he saw what he wanted to be. He went back to his school and volunteered to do computer programming and began overseeing the school’s computer network. He changed his attitude completely and his teachers said he was like a whole new kid. He now assists us with our programs and he’s like the happiest kid in the world. His parents said his newfound interest changed his life.”

Dezfoli-Arjomandi , too, said that once he was able to apply his programming interests in the real world, he began to reap the social benefits. “It was a super transformative phase for me,” he said, describing the release of his first application. The app helped students in his high school track their daily schedules and remember assignments. “Everyone all of a sudden knew who I was,” Dezfoli-Arjomandi said.

The hallways of Dezfoli-Arjomandi ’s high school proved to be both a laboratory and forum for his design process. “[It] was the perfect setting and a highly collaborative environment,” he said. “Our target audience was surrounding us and they were all really interested in giving us feedback.”

Anderson describes the environment in SEMI classrooms as similarly collaborative. “It's the kids that really have an affinity for it. We help them set goals and help them develop what they are good at,” she said. “You’d be surprised how many students who go through this program go, ‘Why can’t school be like this?’”

SEMI High Tech U recommends that participants continue to foster and sharpen their interests through other technology outlets and programs. Dezfoli-Arjomandi is working at Apple this summer, interning under a highly respected computer engineer. He credited the opportunity to his application, Slide, and all of the training that led up to it.

You can reach SEMI through their website. You can also view over a dozen SEMI High Tech U videos on the SEMI YouTube website.

C. Annie Greene is a student at Santa Clara University. She produced this piece as part of a journalism class taught by Sally Lehrman and as part of a collaborative project with Patch on science in Silicon Valley.

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