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UCLA technology program becomes official course, focuses on problem-solving skills

Past students in the technology entrepreneurship boot camp pose for a picture during fall 2019 demo day. After four years as an informal program, the boot camp has doubled in size and become an official UCLA course. (Courtesy of Raffi Simonian)

By Parsa Mokhtar

May 14, 2022 3:01 p.m.

A technology entrepreneurship boot camp has recently become an official course at UCLA after four years of being run as an informal program.

The course, Engineering 170: “Project-Based Technology Bootcamp for Social Impact,” was originally inspired by students in 2017, said Raffi Simonian, senior program manager in the Office of Advanced Research Computing and the instructor of Engineering 170. A major goal of the course is to give students the skills they would need as future entrepreneurs in the technology industry, he said.

Simonian said the boot camp differs from other courses at the university because it exposes students to tasks and problems that arise in the technology workplace.

“I don’t look at it as an academic program, it’s more building skills,” Simonian said. “Eventually education is going to be skills based rather than degree based.”

Students in the class develop pitches focused on finding a solution to a social issue with a technological idea or product, ranging from civic issues to health issues, Simonian said. At the beginning of the quarter, students are split up into teams based on the social focus of their pitch, he added. He said each team has its own industry coach who works in technology and helps guide the students through their projects.

During the first six weeks of the quarter, students listen to guest speakers present on a topic relating to the technology industry and startups, sharing knowledge on subjects such as design and project management, Simonian said. At the end of the quarter, students pitch their ideas and are evaluated on how well they integrate ideas from the guest speakers’ lessons, Simonian added.

On demo day, held at the end of the quarter, Simonian said five professionals who work in the technology space come to hear pitches from students and evaluate how effectively they applied their learning to their project. He aims to host a mix of judges from the private and public sectors and tries to involve UCLA alumni in the process as well.

[Related: LA-area high school students compete in UCLA’s 1st ideathon for health technology]

Emily Noronha, a third-year human biology and society student, said the boot camp is more similar to internships and other extracurricular programs she has done in comparison to her other classes.

She said she appreciates that the format of the class gives students the opportunity to genuinely network with individuals in the technology industry, something that is not always possible with the competition of a formal recruitment environment.

The boot camp has doubled in size since its inception in 2018, Simonian said.

At the program’s start, 44 students had applied, and 24 were accepted and split into three teams, Simonian said. Applications have increased up to 250 students in recent cycles, and now there are six teams with 48 students in total, he added.

Looking forward, Simonian said he hopes to secure private grants to fund the program, continue to grow it and eventually partner with different companies – such as Sony, Disney and Amazon – to use Engineering 170 as a recruitment tool.

The current coaches are volunteers, Simonian said, adding that most of them became interested in coaching the students after attending previous demo day presentations.

“I was really impressed with the ingenuity and the intelligence of the groups,” said Behrang Abadi, one of the industry coaches and the technology bureau manager for the city of Long Beach.

Abadi said he views his role as a coach to bridge the gap between the students’ academic intelligence and practical skills.

Andrew Johnson, the director for source-to-pay systems at Sony, said students in the class had unique approaches to modern problems.

“The students work differently than a lot of the professionals that I work with in my day-to-day job,” Johnson said. “That’s talent that you don’t really see when you go to LinkedIn.”

Sumita Jonak, CEO and founder of Nurlabs – an early cancer diagnostics company – is the coach of the health technology group. Jonak, an alumnus of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, echoed Johnson’s appreciation for the students’ creativity.

“It gives me so much hope for the next generation of scientific achievements,” Jonak said.

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Parsa Mokhtar
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