TAMPA - A group of 30 or so teenagers chose to crowd into a windowless classroom at Middleton High School on a sultry Tuesday afternoon and work on computer video game technology.
Not exactly Huck Finn's idea of a fun summer day, but these T-shirted, flip flop-wearing kids are future students in Middleton's "Introduction to Information Technology" and "Computer Game Design" magnet classes.
That's right: geeks.
But on Tuesday, these 14-17-year-olds were also an exclusive audience for the roll-out of Hillsborough County's Economic Development Innovation Initiative _ EDI2 for short _ a $2 million attempt to grow the county's technology startup "ecology." In other words, planting seeds to help grow technology companies and high-paying jobs for students like those at Middleton.
County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who came up with the idea for EDI2, told the kids they could be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, creators of Microsoft and Apple. And EDI2 could help them get there through mentoring by professionals and access to venture capital once the kids come up with marketable ideas.
"We've got people up here and in the back who are going to help you take your idea and turn it into something you can sell," Sharpe said.
The goals of EDI2 are multi-pronged. The economic development aspect is obvious: create an environment friendly to technology startup companies that in turn will create high-paying jobs.
At the same time, government leaders and educators are united in their desire to create jobs that will keep the county's brightest students close to home instead of flying off to Boston, New York or Seattle after they graduate from college.
"What we know from past research is that where that student goes to college, they will land at after their first job _ if the jobs are there," said Kim Moore, Middleton's assistant principal for magnet curriculum. "We need to try to keep them here in this area so that we can build that intellectual capital and get this economy growing so it's not so dependent on tourists and housing."
To make that happen, Sharpe and Moore say a community needs to build an educational continuum that starts as early as middle school, employing non-traditional classroom methods. Middleton, which is a magnet school for science, technology, engineering and math, has classes that encourage creative thinking and collaboration.
For instance, the students gathered in teacher Tayo Akinrefon's classroom Tuesday included many incoming ninth graders who were skipping the swimming pool for a four-day, computer game design boot camp.
They either worked individually, in small groups or with an older student acting as a mentor. They faced computer screens, not a lectern. Akinrefon circulated, encouraging and responding to questions.
Ninth grader Lilith Foster Vonoesen from Greco Middle School worked with Amaya Ashmore who attended Tomlin Middle School. Vonoesen said she came to the boot camp because she wants to someday work as a graphic artist.
"I like designing characters and this has things to do with that," Vonoesen said. "And programing seems kind of fun, too."
Evan Jensen, a Middleton student mentoring the younger kids, is studying computer configuration and network design. He said he wants to attend Hillsborough Community College, then design computer network systems connecting multiple businesses or government institutions.
"It can be a real challenge," Jensen said. "If you mess up in one little area it may mean the whole network goes down. That means the business could lose a lot of money, so a lot of people are depending on you."
Though Sharpe's suggestion that the Middleton students could create the next Google or Apple Computer may seem a wee hyperbolic, Akinrefon, the instructor, said the statement is well within the realm of possibility. His students are working with cutting edge technology in classrooms that allow the freedom to solve problems, Akinrefon said, a learning environment that could well spawn the next-best gadget or video game.
"Yes they can be the next Bill Gates; yes they can be the next leaders of Microsoft; yes they can be the next leaders of whatever software company they decide," he said.
For more information about the EDI2 Program, go to www.hillsboroughcounty.org/edi2. You can download applications for funding for technology events or for nonprofits engaged in business incubation, accelerating, mentoring and networking to strengthen technology innovation and to leverage private sector resources.