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Geek Squad’s New Mission: Make Technology Cool to Kids

June 19, 2008

By Bao Ong, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Jun. 19–Geek Squad agents, known for zipping around in their black-and-white Volkswagen Beetles to handle service calls, had a different challenge to troubleshoot this week.

Their mission: To spark an interest in technology among youths, especially girls, through the Geek Squad Summer Academy.

They are working with about 70 high school students from across the metro area who gathered at Inver Hills Community College for three days to explore technology. They will rebuild computers, compose HTML code and assemble solar-powered grasshoppers.

Geek Squad — a subsidiary of Richfield-based Best Buy — piloted the technology-focused summer academy at an all-girls Catholic school in Chicago last year. After receiving many accolades, organizers said, they decided to open a dozen such programs across the country, from the Twin Cities to New York City.

“The ‘technology is cool’ message is what we wanted to pass along,” said Kat Sederquist, the academy’s project coordinator. “We do it in a fun, quirky atmosphere.”

The program gives students hands-on experience with technology so it’s less intimidating, and the professionals can work one-on-one with participants, Sederquist said.

In between sessions, students played “Dance Dance Revolution,”"Rock Band” and Wii video games to keep them engaged in the summer program.

Fifteen-year-old Michael Feinstein, an incoming sophomore at Henry Sibley High School, taps away at his computer regularly but learning more

advanced skills “was intimidating at first,” he said.

His friend Kyle Dybdal, 15, watched other students bang on drums and sing during “Rock Band” before a class on how to crop and edit digital photographs.

It was “exciting and intriguing” to put together a computer, Dybdal said, who added that the program helped him realize he could possibly combine his interest in music with technology by one day developing software.

The Geek Squad agents — with titles ranging from special agent to chief inspector — helped make the learning more interesting, Dybdal said.

“They’re not all high and mighty,” he said. “They’re more like us.”

Sederquist showed off her cell phone, which she had modified to purr like a cat every time the keyboard slid open.

Fun aside, Sederquist said, a key goal of the program is to pique the interest of girls and students of varying socio-economic backgrounds.

Women earned just 25 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science in 2004 — the most recent numbers available — down from a high of 37 percent in 1984, according to the National Science Foundation.

About a third of the participants this week are female. Students paid $25 to participate, but the fee was waived for those who couldn’t afford it.

One reason more boys gravitate toward computer and tech jobs could be their affinity for video games, said Paige Hubbell, a Geek Squad employee who led the sessions on “green technology.”

More teens might feel comfortable around technology, however, as they use YouTube and social networking Web sites to communicate, she added.

Jessica Lee, a home-school student from St. Paul, said she’s taken apart computers and put them back together before.

“Computers can be fun once you’re used to them,” the 17-year-old said.

Victoria Vang, a 15-year-old from Cottage Grove, agreed but added, “I think girls are still stuck with ideas about what they should be able to do for careers.”

During the green technology class, Lee and Vang plugged in a microwave, laptop, television and an overhead projector while monitoring how much energy each appliance used up.

“I’m not sure what I want to do for a job,” Vang said. “This is fun, though.”

Bao Ong can be reached at 651-228-5435.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

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