iD Tech has been running summer tech camps for kids and teens since 1999, and their mission – to create life-changing tech experiences that embolden students to shape the future – hasn’t changed. But along the way, they realized teaching students tech skills wasn’t enough. In order to achieve their mission, and meet the growing need for skilled STEM workers, these kids needed to be able to speak intelligently about their work, and sell themselves to both college admissions and to potential employers. That’s when they partnered with iFOLIO®, the leading digital platform for college and beyond.
We sat down with Director, Innovation & Partnerships Ricky Bennett and Chief Program Officer Joy Meserve to find out more about iD Tech programs, why iFOLIO is an essential ingredient of their students’ journeys, and how their partnership helps arm students with the hard and soft skills they need to sell themselves in the marketplace and build a successful future in innovation.
What’s your mission at iD Tech?
Ricky: We’re in our 20th season of summer STEM programs. Basically, we teach the in-demand skills that most kids just can’t get in their regular school. This year we have well over 50 thousand students coming to our camps.
You hear a lot about the STEM skills shortage in the U.S. – it’s really worldwide, but most the numbers come out of the U.S. Code.org predicts around 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs by 2020, which is a year and a half away. We met with the University of Washington, for instance, who has a fantastic program in cybersecurity. They have tons of great partnerships, like with the NSA. Their only problem? They need good, qualified students.
We saw a gap – kids who might become interested in STEM careers aren’t necessarily getting the inspiration or the knowledge to qualify for good programs. So, we decided to help create a kind of ramp-up, so kids can get excited about STEM and make the jump to college and then into STEM fields.
How do your programs work? How do kids generally get started?
Ricky: We developed what we call the iD Tech pathway. We start out with students as young as 7 years old and use things like Minecraft and Lego Mindstorms to make sure they have a very positive, fun first experience with technology. Then as they get older, between 10 and 12, they get more into heavier coding concepts: Game development, digital art, robotics.
By the time they’re teenagers they’re really finding their path. Then we have our coeducational iD Tech camps and we have what’s called Alexa Cafe, which is girls only. These are the entry points for most of our students. From there, students move up to our Academies, which are more academic: We have the iD Game Design and Development Academy, and the iD Coding and Engineering Academy. These go from one to two weeks, and it’s an opportunity for them to really bloom.
From there have one more Capstone product called AcademyNEXT which is four weeks. It’s very exclusive – only 30-or-so students get in, most of whom have already been to several weeks of our programs at different divisions.
We bring them together into an incubator almost – we put them together in the same like building and they work on these insane projects, really cool stuff. And recruiters come from places like Google to look at these students for future internships.
These are 17-year-olds, remember. They’re about to start their senior year, or maybe they just graduated. It’s a huge opportunity for them.
Why did you start working with iFOLIO?
Ricky: iD Tech got started because we saw a gap – but we eventually realized we had a gap of our own, and iFOLIO really helps fill that. As students think about what they’re working on and how it can help them for their next step – getting into college, moving forward in their career – we found that it’s necessary for them to have a digital portfolio, and not just for showcasing their work. Building their portfolio helps them step back and actually think about what they’re doing and why it matters. What makes it important? iFOLIO lets students better communicate their thought process, their journey, to college admissions. It helps them sell themselves – they build a personalized and targeted digital portfolio that maximizes their application success for college, internships, and jobs.
We really enjoy working with them, because like us they’re passionate about what they do. They’ve sent people out to some of our locations, not because we asked them to but because they wanted to. They did video chats with directors to make sure that the product that we signed up for, and what these kids are going to do, is actually going to happen out at camp. We’ve got hundreds of locations across the globe and so making sure roll out is smooth and avoiding duplication of processes matters. They’ve been an enormous asset to us.
Joy: They’re also an innovative company. They’re willing to experiment and try new things to get it right, to make sure our staff has the tools they need. We’re like that as well, we’re constantly in evolution and trying to improve. It’s in our DNA. It’s definitely in iFOLIO’s DNA as well.
It’s interesting that you use iFOLIO not just as a showcase but as a way to help your students think about what they’re doing, and how and why they’re doing it. Can you elaborate on that? Joy: We have one particular student, he’s one of our students from Romania, who is passionate about machine learning and deep neural networks. He’s put his school experience in his iFOLIO, in addition to his experience at iD Tech Coding and Engineering Academy. He’s put his volunteer activities, conferences that he’s attended, and it really shows his ability to sell himself. We find most students don’t generally have this ability, and it’s an essential skill they need to learn. They’ve found iFOLIO a really good template to start with. We ask them to think about all the things a college wants to see, the things you’re doing that are important for admissions to know about. Now – how do you communicate that?
In iFOLIO they get the pictures and examples of their work laid out really nicely, and they also have the stories about their work to go along with it. That’s so important.
You hear stories about companies not looking at CV’s anymore, or looking much harder at so-called soft skills like commitment, passion, teamwork. Their iFOLIOs help them blend both their hard and their soft skills together into one cohesive portfolio that presents a much fuller, more complete picture of who they are.
Ricky: If students can’t articulate the value of their hard skills then those hard skills don’t count. Explaining the experience you’ve had with, say neural networks is really difficult for a teenager. They need to learn how, and being able to show a project, show images, show their success, really helps them articulate what they did and what they can do.
Joy: I had the pleasure of selecting applicants for our Capstone, AcademyNEXT. Only 34 students made it in, and I would cut people if they couldn’t sell themselves. So it’s really a critical skill. So many kids don’t tell me anything beyond what I asked in the question – they’d give me one sentence answers. Ok, you tell me you’re a master coder, that’s how you ranked your skills, but because you didn’t elaborate I don’t have any real proof or context for whether that’s true or not. So I would have loved to… I think maybe I’ll have kids fill out an iFOLIO next year to apply to AcademyNEXT!
What about beyond college? For their prospective future employers, what makes these kids better employees, better innovators? What advantage do they have?
Ricky: They learn to think. Our Academy students were using iFOLIO, they learned to work in groups. But they’re not working on a group project for history class. They’re making something they care about. Some students at our academies this year made movie recommendation services. One young lady made a 3D printed model of tower – she was from New Orleans and it was a mock up of how she wanted to take a tower in downtown New Orleans and turn it into a shelter for homeless people. Why? Because she saw a problem, she cares about it, and she wants to do something about it.
We really try to show kids that they can make projects that are fun. You can learn, you can be thinking about college, you can change your world – and you can do all of them at the same time. We’re trying to help students have a holistic experience: yeah, you’re learning coding but you’re not doing it the boring way, just sitting in a lab punching a keyboard. You’re doing it for a reason. That reason might be to bring entertainment value – maybe someone’s making the next great video game and it’s going to make people connect and be happy. And that’s fantastic you know. Or maybe someone’s writing a neural network coding project that cracks the cancer code one day. We don’t know where they’re going to end up, but we know that those are the kind of kids we have in our programs.
Joy: When the students come to our programs, one thing we constantly hear from them is that they’ve found their people. And not just in their fellow students but also in the staff – they’re the embodiment of what’s possible. They’re a representation of: I made it to this point, I’m in college now, I’m studying what I am sparking your interest and curiosity in. And then it’s like their minds open instantly, like ‘oh that’s a path for me.’ They want to get to be as cool as their instructors someday, and we’re just trying to help them get there.
Like Ricky was saying, the environment we create is not like school. It’s an environment where they don’t want to stop learning. Trying to pull these kids out for activities, to go outside, is probably one of the hardest things we do during the day because they want to keep working. They want to be in the labs. They want to do something tech-related because they’ve had the interest sparked and now they’re in a flow.
They’re not just learning because they have to, they’re learning because they want to. I think that’s the biggest difference that we see in our students – the start of that lifelong zest for learning.
Yes, they’ll go home, and maybe they’ll pair up with one of our private instructors, but no matter what they’re going keep trying to learn more.
Ricky: The other thing is, we’ve got around two thousand 2000 students who created iFOLIOs out of our camp this year. Their parents have invested in their education outside of camp as well, and we are investing time in them. We’re investing them into the future. For them to just get thrown in a pile with all the other college applicants? These kids are special, and we want them to show off that they’re special.
Fifteen years ago there was no such thing as a digital portfolio. Now it’s become essential – without one, many schools won’t even look at your application. Our students are trying to get into elite colleges, and we have to help them be able to speak the language and sell themselves. That’s an advantage we’re able to give them, and iFOLIO helps us do that.