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Tech Center sets the pace

Baltimore may be home to the rec center of the future.

Andrew Coy, executive director and co-founder of the Digital Harbor Foundation, outside the Tech Center in Federal Hill. (The Daily Record /Maximilian Franz)

It’s only a year old, but the Digital Harbor Foundation’s Tech Center in Federal Hill has become a model nationwide for giving students the skill set for a tech-forward economy and a passion for using those skills.

Nearby and out-of-state organizations have approached the foundation and its executive director and co-founder, Andrew Coy, about expanding it and creating similar models elsewhere.

Phil Cunningham, for example, recently visited the Digital Harbor Foundation, and plans to create a similar program in Ohio. Cunningham is a program manager for the Columbus Urban League, which plans to open a tech center much like Digital Harbor’s this fall.

“What they were doing locally fit the needs from a workforce standpoint to basically create a workforce for tomorrow,” he said. The students “were learning without really knowing they were learning.”

The tech center celebrated its one-year anniversary Thursday by showcasing student work.

The students’ projects are functional and useful — like a 3D printer and a church website. Some are also whimsical, like a digital jukebox made out of an old piano.

“It’s not a classroom. It’s a maker space,” said Coy. “They’re working on projects they love, so they’ll spend hours and hours.”

The tech center’s two spaces — the Nano Lab and the Mega Lab — cater to young children and teens, respectively.

The younger ones — about 30 of them, in first through eighth grade —learn how to build and create with coaches from FutureMakers, an outside organization that works with Digital Harbor. The older students, as a part of the Maker Foundations program, have a slightly more customized program.

Maker Foundations allows 12- to 17-year-olds to learn the technical skills they are most interested in. Participants get 12 weeks of instruction before they are paired with professional mentors and choose a project to create.

Bryan Collins draws a diagram for the Digital Harbor Foundation’s Nano Lab, which provides hands-on technical learning experiences for children in first through eighth grade and opportunities for older children. (The Daily Record / Lizzy McLellan)

Once through that process, the teens get “member” status at the Digital Harbor Foundation, with potential perks like paying jobs and internship opportunities, business cards and professional learning experiences. The first “generation” of 24 Maker Foundations students recently finished the process. Another class will start later this month with up to 50 teens.

That’s how 14-year-old Sierra Seabrease came to build her piano jukebox. The piano was left over from the South Baltimore Recreation Center, which formerly occupied the tech center building.

Sierra, with help from Digital Harbor Foundation’s director of technology, Shawn Grimes, rigged the piano so that pressing on each key would complete a circuit, sending a message to a music system to add a particular song to the end of the playlist.

It’s a way to make the lab more interactive for visitors, said Coy.

Sierra goes to the tech center two or three times a week. When asked why she likes it, she answered with one word: freedom.

“You can work on so many different things,” she said as she painted the piano.

For instance, she’s scanned herself and other students with a 3-D scanner and used a CNC (computer numerical control) machine to carve a graphic design into wood.

Another student, 17-year-old Darius McCoy, found his main interest in creating 3-D printers. He was frustrated the first time he built one, he said. But he got the hang of it and built four printers in six months.

“They were like, ‘I’m helping you by not helping you,’” said Darius of the Digital Harbor staff. “I had to figure things out by myself.”

By allowing young people to explore their interests in a flexible environment, Coy aims to instill a passion for innovation and creation.

“We have as much of an interest gap as a skills gap,” said Coy. “The fastest way to kill that interest is dictating” what the students can and cannot do.

The skills gap he mentioned is a matter of growing economic concern, leading to programs like Maryland’s EARN, which provides grants to partnerships developing more efficient employee training methods.

But Digital Harbor allows students to discover those skills early on and see the opportunities available in a modern economy. Many of them come from low-income neighborhoods, said Coy, so that exposure is important.

“There’s so many tech companies that are constantly looking for talent and not finding it,” said Coy, so well-paying jobs go to no one. “This is the most direct route for [the students] to find their own way and not get stuck in the cycles of poverty.”