Newburyport High School senior Nick Cammarata is not the student who typically gets the highest grades.
He's been a good student with letter grades that peaked high and dipped low on occasion, depending on his level of engagement in the subject matter.
While his classmates were listening to teachers' lectures, his head was often buried in a book on the latest trends in computer programming.
That approach to learning is now paying off in a big way. The 18-year-old Cammarata is one of 24 youths worldwide selected by PayPal founder Peter Thiel to receive a $100,000 fellowship designed to promote scientific and technological advancement and entrepreneurialism.
Cammarata, who is set to graduate from Newburyport High next weekend, will forgo his acceptance into the computer science program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and instead spend the next two years working to launch his start-up company.
On July 1, Cammarata will pack his bags and head to Palo Alto, Calif., where he will be supported by the Thiel Foundation in perfecting his personal design of a learning system that could upend what some consider stale models of teaching, which have dominated for decades.
Cammarata, who as young as 12 was keenly interested in having an impact on the way technology can serve mankind, said receiving a coveted $100,000 Thiel Fellowship is just about the most exciting thing that could have happened to him.
"Palo Alto is the hub of the world for start-ups," he said. "Every start-up that's gotten really popular, just about all of them are located in Palo Alto."
As one of the first members of the Thiel Foundation's 20 Under 20 Fellowship class, Cammarata will be following in the footsteps of the youngest self-made billionaire in the country, Mark Zuckerburg, who made his way to Palo Alto to design and market Facebook. And like Zuckerburg, Cammarata will receive some help in getting his idea up and running from another famous young entrepreneur, Thiel, who was the first outside investor in Facebook.
Thiel launched the 20 Under 20 Fellowship, which is actually being awarded to 24 people under age 20 in its inaugural year, to give young people the opportunity to pursue scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship and begin to build the technology companies of the future.
Cammarata and his partner, David Merfield of Princeton, N.J., were among more than 400 applicants under age 20 from nearly two dozen countries to apply for the fellowship.
"The fellows are a tremendous group of young people who are going to advance the frontiers of knowledge, shake up staid industries and change the world," Thiel said in a press release.
"Tomorrow will not take care of itself. In order to solve vexing problems and increase the quality of life for people everywhere, the world's economy needs continuous scientific and technical innovation from outstanding creative minds. I'm looking forward to helping the fellows become the next generation of tech visionaries."
At age 12, Cammarata started working as a software engineering contractor for corporations like Microsoft and institutions of higher learning, such as Harvard and Stanford universities.
During his freshman year at Newburyport High, he founded a company called Upload Robots, which allows people to transfer files over the Internet. He linked up with Merfield, a business partner he met online who was interested in contributing something to the endeavor, which aimed to make downloading documents easier and faster.
Together, they grew the business to 10,000 registered users, with others taking advantage of the free service without registering, he said, and the site has been utilized to perform about 80 million downloads.
The duo had opportunities to monetize the program, but thought there were more important things than money. They were proud their free product was being accessed by users in Africa, China and schools and corporations the world over.
In addition to a few other projects, Cammarata also founded Popcorn.js, which is used "to make video easier on the web, to make interactions with video easier." The open-source project, which allows people to add their code to it, now has about 30 active programmers working on it and is being sponsored by the Web search engine Mozilla.
When Cammarata and Merfield began thinking of ways to use technology to improve lives, they stumbled on the Thiel Fellowship and came up with an idea for the classroom called OPEN, which they are convinced will transform students' success rates in school.
"What we want to do is create a system for teachers to create their lectures online so instead of preaching to kids every day and spending most of the class period lecturing to kids in a busy setting, we want to flip the classroom so the lectures are heard at home," Cammarata said.
"The students watch the lectures at home for homework. Then during the class, they would do what their homework would be, when the teachers are there to help them. We feel lecturing is a one-way stream of information for the most part, and we don't feel that's right for the class. We feel the class time should be a discussion between teachers and the students, and that's what we're trying to do."
Cammarata and Merfield submitted their idea to design a tablet-style program similar to one known as the Kahn Academy, which could be accessed by students on their family's home computer. And at the behest of Thiel Foundation advisers, they streamlined their plan.
"We applied in November, and we did not think we even had a chance at it," Cammarata said. "The competition was crazy. But after several rounds of interviewing, we narrowed down our idea to be very specific. Then six weeks ago, we were told we won."
Cammarata will be getting help in California from another Newburyport High alumni, Dylan Pyle, who will also put his college career at UMass on hold to help launch OPEN.
A native of Newburyport, Cammarata said the Thiel Fellowship is ideal for someone like him who has sometimes struggled to succeed within the typical learning structure.
"I'm hoping to change that for other kids like me," he said.