In a nondescript Apple office building in Cupertino, California, a group of engineers has spent the past four weeks working feverishly on the next big thing in consumer hardware, prototyping a water-saving shower head, a new version of the Apple Watch, and a “smart” water bottle.
These products may never hit the market, but that hasn’t deterred the 25 high schoolers who are building them as part of an Apple summer camp. Called the Engineering Technology Camp, or ETC for short, the new camp was designed to give high school juniors and seniors full access to 40 Apple staffers, as well as various building tools, as they split into teams and try to build working prototypes in just under a month.
The Verge visited the camp earlier this week and saw some of the products, which were required to work with Apple software or hardware in some way. Apple staff set a theme for the camp: sustainability. (This is not a little bit ironic, since Apple has just come under fire in a report from Repair.org that alleges Apple and other companies are intentionally making it difficult to repair and reuse devices.)
Some of the ETC products were built almost entirely from scratch, like Shower Buddy, an internet-connected shower head and bath mat that let you set a timer on your showers from your smartphone. It senses when you’ve stepped away from the shower head (say, to apply shampoo), and adjusts the water flow to save water. Others, like Airware, build on top of existing Apple designs to create a wearable air-quality monitor and UV tracker. One of the students on the Airware engineering team, 16-year-old Annika Urban, said she envisions something like this eventually being built directly into the Apple Watch.
Other products not pictured included a connected composting bin, a connected water bottle, and a refrigerator monitor.
The camp group, which was comprised of 13 women and 12 men, hailed from all over the US and came from varied backgrounds, in terms of their exposure to coding or engineering prior to the camp.
“My Spanish teacher actually suggested that I should take part in this and that it would be a good experience, because we don’t have many options for things [like this],” said Treyvarious Collins, a 17-year-old student from Lambert, Mississippi. Collins, who helped build the Shower Buddy, said he’s still primarily interested in getting a degree in psychology, but is now considering mechanical engineering as a backup.
Another student, 16-year-old Hakim Teasdell, said he’s taken some engineering classes at his high school in Charlotte, North Carolina, but that he’s had a change of heart since coming to camp. “Before I got here, I really thought I wanted to do computer science. But since I’ve gotten here, I’ve really liked the CAD stuff,” he said, referring to computer-automated design and drafting software.
ETC piloted two years ago, says Dan Riccio, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering. However, this summer marked the first official year of the camp. Apple says it worked with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, to encourage students from diverse backgrounds and underserved communities to apply.
High-tech camps are not uncommon among large tech companies now, especially programs that focus on coding. Google has a wide variety of programs that cater to students, including its Summer of Code for university students, Code Next for black and Hispanic students, and a Student Veteran Summit.
Microsoft offers different student-focused programs as part of its YouthSpark initiative, which include the DigiGirlz program for middle school and high school girls, and free coding classes at its retail stores (something Apple also does). Microsoft will also fund student trips to well-known diversity conferences, such as the Grace Hopper conference.
As large tech companies are being scrutinized for a stunning lack of diversity in their own workforces, these kinds of camps give companies an opportunity to connect with underrepresented groups and find talent there while people are still relatively young.
“As time has gone on it’s become a bit more competitive to get the best students to visit Apple, so we figured we should take a look at an opportunity to go deeper into a the supply chain, if you will,” Riccio said in an interview. “And get a hold of some of the best and brightest folks; introduce them to science, technology, and products; and also broaden our own skill base in terms of diversity.”
The month-long camp culminates in what Apple is probably most well-known for outside of its product-making: product presentations. Today, the last day of ETC, the high school students are scheduled to present their products to Riccio and the other Apple employees who have been running the camp.
It seems the students are getting lessons in Apple’s infamous secrecy around products as well. When I asked a group of students whether they plan to continue working on their products after ETC ends, one studied replied, “I think we’ve all had that thought, but we signed an agreement, so... we can’t say anything.”
So, if you see an Apple shower head or compost bin on the market in a few years, there’s at least a chance it came from a high schooler, not your typical Apple engineer.
Photography by Lauren Goode / The Verge