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In tech program, teens find their inner Geek

Kevin Velasquez (left), Manley Paul, Jeffrey Stephens, and Andrew McCall learned animation.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Kevin Velasquez (left), Manley Paul, Jeffrey Stephens, and Andrew McCall learned animation.

On a rainy Friday morning, about 80 teenagers were gathered in a basement, taking apart computers, testing video games, and learning how to create their own. It was a snapshot of a two-day interactive technology seminar run by professional Geeks.

The participants, on the other hand, were not in the same category as their teachers. Enrolled in alternative high schools run by the nonprofit Action for Boston Community Development, the teens, joking with each other in the hall, seemed like they would have preferred hanging out with friends rather than learning to program.

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But inside the classrooms in the basement of the ABCD building, the teens stared intently at computer screens, tapping out code, and manipulating data. As instructors posed questions, they enthusiastically shouted the answers.

The teens were participating the Geek Squad Summer Academy, a national effort by the tech support unit of electronics retailer Best Buy to teach teens computer basics and other technology skills. The goal is to increase the technical literacy of students, expose them to the possibility of technology careers, and help close the technology gap between rich and poor.

The technology gap is used to describe the limited access that lower income families and students have to the latest technologies, a big disadvantage in an economy increasingly driven by knowledge, technical skills, and innovation. This gap creates a barrier between lower income students and the jobs of the future, said Eric Nakajima, the assistant secretary for innovation policy at the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Constance Steed, 19, worked on fixing a broken video game during the Geek Squad Summer Academy.

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Tech-related occupations are projected to be among the fastest growing through the decade, according to the US Labor Department. The innovation economy is the fastest growing segment of the Massachusetts economy.

“Many people don’t have access to the latest technologies, which obviously gives them a disadvantage of where the fastest growing jobs are,” he said. “There are a lot of ways we can help remediate that, and the Geek Squad is one of them.”

The Geek Squad Summer Academy began in 2007, and this summer will hold classes in 20 cities, including New York, Tampa, and Atlanta.

At each location, anywhere from 75 to 200 students, 9 to 18 years old learn technology skills.

This year was the Summer Academy’s first time in Boston, culminating a nine-month planning process that involved Best Buy and ABCD.

“These programs let them know there are these kinds of opportunities available once they get their degree,” said Roger Oser, the principal of William J. Ostiguy High School, a school for teens recovering from drug or alcohol addictions.

The other high school participating in the program was ABCD’s University High School, which enrolls Boston students who are struggling academically or are otherwise at risk of dropping out.

During the two days of classes, students participated in eight 45-minute sessions on topics such as computer programming, computer building, photography, and animation. In the digital music session, students learned to create background beats for songs.

In one instruction room, about 15 boys created stop-motion animation videos. On a table, each group had paper cutouts of fish on trays with colored backgrounds.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Best Buy Geek Squad instructor Kevin Mathisen helped sisters Lucy Santana, 20, and Brenda Lucero, 12.

The day before, they had moved the cutouts slowly across the tray, filming as they went. On their computer screens, the fish came to life as students edited their videos.

“I could put this on my resume,” said University High School student Hector Rodriguez, 18. “With digital skills like this, I could get the job.”

In another room, a group of about 12 girls sat in front of computer modems — covers off, parts strewn about the table. Wesley Shook, a Geek Squad instructor, stood in front of the class. After a brief review of computer parts, Shook donned a blindfold, racing the girls, in teams of two, to see who could put their modem back together faster. The winning duo completed the task in 43 seconds.

“When they first told us about it, I thought it was going to be sitting learning about computers for four or six hours. Who wants to do that?” said 17-year-old Naryaun Mitchell, who also goes to University High School.“This makes me open my eyes to other opportunities, more than just computers.”

These real-life skill opportunities are ones that ABCD strives to create for young people in its programs, said John J. Drew, ABCD president. The nonprofit has also partnered with companies such as the telecommunications company Verizon and Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge biotechnlogy firm.

“I wish we could do a dozen more,” said Drew. “We need those connections to the real world where these kids are going to end up.”

Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gailwaterhouse.
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