Teens have always been stereotyped as massive consumers of technology, but in some cases they're also the ones advancing it. Young people have long been avid early adopters, and not just of applications like Snapchat and Instagram.
The Internet and mobile devices have democratized access to technology across all age groups—and while some teens may use it primarily to post selfies and hook up, many others have become self-reliant and self-taught innovators. I set out to meet some of these imaginative teens—and now you can, too.
Matthew Pressman, 17
Pressman has been programming since he was 11, after discovering that that people build video and computer games by coding them.
He has since taken on numerous projects as a lead programmer or electrical engineer—most recently Art Squared, a device Pressman and other students built on the open-source electronic-prototyping platform Arduino. It's an assistive painting device for people with cerebral palsy that lets people move a paintbrush across a canvas with a remote joystick.
Pressman and the six other teenagers who built Art Squared are part of a youth development organization called MOUSE that works with students across the country to learn and create with technology.
Last year, MOUSE partnered with United Cerebral Palsy of New York City so that students could develop projects geared to help people with the disease. After talking with an artist who was unable to paint due to her condition, Pressman and his team decided to build Art Squared to benefit artists everywhere.
His team's next step will be to make the project plans available as open source material sometime in the next few months so that anyone can build Art Squared. Its construction cost is only $150, significantly less than other assistive devices. “We’re just going to see if we can work on it after school on a Thursday or something,” Pressman says. “We really want to make it accessible to everyone.”
Pressman plans to pursue a degree in game design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and eventually to start his own game design studio.
Cameron D. Mira, 17
What do you get when you combine Dr. Who and lightning-emitting Tesla coils? The TARDIS Tesla, at least once Mira is done building it.
The 17-year-old art student is working on a game that turns eight-foot-tall Tesla coils, which shoot out high voltage but low-current electrical discharges, into a game based on the 1970s code-breaking game Bulls and Cows and controlled by universal TV remote controls. Players have to figure out a secret code and input the command to make and the coil fire a bolt of (harmless) lightning at a replica TARDIS, the time machine from the hit sci-fi series Dr. Who.
The Bay Area native first became interested in the "maker movement"—sort of like DIY culture on steroids—after reading MAKE magazine. He soon joined the Oakland-based Hacker Scouts program. He's currently both a mentor and a scout in the program and goes by the maker name CamDax.
The TARDIS Tesla isn’t Mira’s first foray into building Tesla coils; he has a pair of two-foot-tall coils he built himself. While his new project is still in the funding stages, he's hopeful he can begin the project soon.
The home-schooled teenager graduated high school two years early and is now pursuing a degree in art, but plans to switch to a double major combining art and electrical engineering. His future career plans don’t necessarily involve high-powered electrical games—he wants to work for Pixar instead.
His advice for other teens looking to pursue projects like this: “You really just have to surf the Internet and learn stuff. Oh, and find a good source of money.”
Henry Troutman, 16
For the past two years, Troutman has been building games, creating languages and hacking electronic circuits.
First introduced to computer science in an advanced placement course at his Bellevue, Wash., high school, he quickly became part of a community of students with similar interests. “I had an interest in it before the class, but I wasn’t very proficient in programming before,” Troutman said. “Going through the class help me realize it.”
But he's quick to add that he's taught himself most of what he’s learned since.
In the past year, Troutman created a drag-and-drop programming language for WordPress; a game engine called “Hengine” that works on PC and Android, as well as many games that use it; and a set of tools (similar to Twitter Bootstrap) for building websites and Web applications Troutman calls "Henstrap." He's currently working on his own Web language.
Troutman's next project is a Facebook app intended to help groups organize themselves on the social network. As currently conceived, groups will enter their Facebook information into the app, and it will use that data to generate and host a website for the group, using the group’s feed to post news and events.
The 16-year-old hacker might bypass college in order to pursue his career instead. He’s looking to get an internship as soon as possible, but remains undecided on college.
“My mom really wants me to go to college,” he said. “But it seems like a lot of time that I can spend actually working.”
Tom Maxwell, 18
Maxwell, a native of Boulder, Colo., lives in San Francisco and is building what he calls a "self-aware journal" intended to help people quantify their lives (and not just their selves). Dubbed Chakra (formerly Metastory), the tool is a private journal application that helps chroniclers identify their "personal patterns, connections and ideas." According to its webpage:
We believe that the practice of keeping a journal is a lost art that has a way of teaching people about themselves. Sometimes it's hard to know what to look for unless you can spot patterns in your behaviors.
Maxwell hopes the tool can help people find their own way to happiness encouraging them to document their thoughts and feelings and to learn from what they write. He was inspired, he says, by his cofounder's passion for meditation. "We found a lot of similarities between meditation and writing in a journal," he says.
He graduated high school two years early and began teaching himself to code after realizing how challenging it can be to find a technical cofounder.
Maxwell works as a freelance software engineer while he's building his company; his cofounder in Seattle works at a startup as well. His first application was a news summary similar to Summly, a now-defunct app (following its acquisition by Yahoo) that provided algorithmically generated summaries of news.
Unlike many teens his age, Maxwell isn’t planning on going to college anytime soon. His parents, still in Boulder, are supportive of his decision but are hoping one day he might change his mind. “If Chakra can get a user base we’ll try and raise funding and join a program like Y Combinator,” he said. “If it doesn’t work out, I’ll probably join a startup.”
Maxwell is one of many teens taking a nontraditional route into the workforce. Friends of his, he says, have participated in Peter Thiel’s fellowship for young people, one that offers a $100,000 grant and encourages teens to skip college and instead focus on building great products.
Honorable Mention: Alexandra Jordan, 9
Although she has a few years to go before she qualifies as a teenager, Jordan is starting her career in programming early. Her application Super Fun Kid Time is a play date finder for kids.
“I usually get bored in the summer and it’s very hard to find playdates,” she says. “So I thought ‘Hey! A good idea is to make a playdate finder!’ because I’ve been learning how to program.”
Jordan is learning Ruby on Rails and HTML on a site called Code Academy, an online service that teaches programming skills. Her website is still in beta, and although she had some help from her father who is a programmer himself, she proudly explains that she designed the site's logo and graphics and wrote its basic structure in HTML.
Jordan revealed her application at a hackathon last month, and since then she has been working diligently to get it up and running. She's drawn interest from other companies like ooVoo, a video chatting application that she's integrating into Super Fun Kid Time for virtual playdates.
The Sunnyvale, Calif., student says she's the only coder at her school. This year, though, she plans to start a weekly tech club where she'll teach fellow fourth graders how to code.
Like many nine-year-olds, she enjoys reading, biking, and jumping rope. But her excitement for programming dwarfs those other hobbies. “When we get back from [the Next Web Hack Battle] we are going to program a Raspberry Pi!” she says.
Next Gen Hackers
Most of the students I talked to had taught themselves how to code. In today's world (and job market), it's not uncommon for young people to learn skills on their own that will improve their chances of entering the workforce.
Of course, technical skills can also help them solve problems they run into while playing video games, chatting online, or building underwater robots.
Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.com