Baltimore's Digital Harbor Foundation wants to turn rec centers into tech centers

By tying the recreation center back into the city's economy, DHF is creating a new opportunity to get kids excited about technology.

Image: Digital Harbor Foundation

Baltimore is an all-American city, said Andrew Coy.

He's a former inner city Baltimore high school social studies teacher, and he can list historical people and events that have run through Baltimore, from Francis Scott Key and "The Star Spangled Banner," to Frederick Douglass, to the shipyards of World War II.

Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore.

These days, Baltimore's been in the news, another pin on the map in the modern day struggle for Civil Rights.

But apart from flash points and headlines, Baltimore is an example of an American city where the factories have closed, jobs have been lost, and the inner city remains in tumult.

Many of the more promising jobs that do exist, Coy said, are out of reach for many -- a study done by the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore found that there were 20,800 vacant jobs in technology. Those are jobs with an average salary of $85,000, and 36% of which don't require a college degree.

For Baltimore, a city where certain neighborhoods have seen up to 20% unemployment, there's a woeful gap.

"These [jobs] in the tech community are not being connected to those populations that have the highest unemployment. The question is: Why is that, and how do you bridge that gap?" Coy said.

He's the executive director of the Digital Harbor Foundation, a non-profit in Baltimore that's working to do just that -- bridge that gap, and get the city to invest in its people and its spaces by turning recreational centers, into makerspaces.

Another way to put it: rec to tech.

For Coy, his involvement with tech education and the community started when he was still a teacher. Going off his own experience doing web development when he was younger, he'd been telling his students he could get them jobs making websites.

That was the inception for an after-school club. He found a client, showed the students how to make a website using Wordpress, and how to pursue those type of real-world opportunities that were even attached to money.

Coy also helped orchestrate other opportunities like reverse mentorship, where students could teach elementary teachers how to use iPads.

Then a few years into the after-school club, the City of Baltimore announced it would be shutting down a number of its recreation centers.

He noticed that the city was spending about the same amount of money on the Grand Prix as it was cutting from the rec center budget, and the conclusion he came to was simple: The Grand Prix was an economic engine. Rec centers were not.

His thought was to find a way to reconnect rec centers to investment in the Baltimore economy.

"From my vantage point as a teacher who was also in the tech community, I'd go to all these tech meetups -- they're all talking about a lack of talent, and I work with kids everyday in Baltimore that love technology, but don't know even what jobs are out there much less how you go from the classroom to a career, and I said, 'Why don't we solve both those problems?'" Coy said.

The school he taught at had a rec center attached to it, and he found out that if he could get his principal to vouch for him, essentially, he could use the space.

He talked to people, he got funding, he partnered with a local tech entrepreneur, Sean Lane, who had wanted to give back to the community by giving scholarships -- the original form of DHF.

The thing was, though, for an underserved population with little or no exposure to tech, they wouldn't even be in a place to apply for a scholarship like that without something to spark their interest early on.

It took about nine months for all this to happen. By the end of the school year in 2013, Coy left his teaching job to become the executive director of the Digital Harbor Foundation.

"It's the perfect pathway for them to develop the skillset, the mindset, the passion, the interest and to know what the next steps are for them to go from an interest to a career," Coy said.

DHF basically separates the day into three chunks -- after school, early evening, and during school.

From about 3 to 6 p.m., kids are coming to DHF from all over the city. They get a hot meal and can take classes on topics like Minecraft or 3D printing and design.

From roughly 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., DHF has events like Family Make Night, or opens up the space to tech meetup groups, as long as those groups are free to anyone.

And during the day, local schools can come on field trips and spend a half day. This semester is about 3D printing, so kids get to design and print something to take home, and also design something that stays at DHF as a part of a larger, crowd-built object. In the process, they learn about the industry, where it's projected to go, opportunities they might have in the future, and where to find resources online to keep them plugged in.

At DHF, students can learn about everything from graphic design, to web development, to animation, and sound production. Right now, 3D design and printing is the big thing -- and for kids who have been around DHF for a while already, they'll probably end up working with Marty McGuire, DHF's maker in residence.

McGuire is a local web developer, and was actually the head developer on Thingiverse, MakerBot's platform for sharing printable 3D designs.

He and his wife, Amy, had met and become friends with current DHF director of technology Shawn Grimes and his wife Steph, and as McGuire put it, he slowly got sucked in.

Image: Digital Harbor Foundation

On his first day as maker in residence, just a few days before a project showcase for the kids, he had to help a little boy named Samuel figure out what was wrong with a draw bot he'd designed, which was not working properly.

The 3D printed suction cups weren't effective, and the bot, which was supposed to clip to a whiteboard, was moving in random directions.

"I'm sitting there with the terminal window open, logged into this thing, trying to hack on the python code. Poor Samuel is trying to figure out what I'm doing, because I'm not communicating very well, but when I finally started talking with him about it, he was able to explain like 'this is the design -- these are the problems I encountered doing this part or soldering it together,'" McGuire said.

The problem was, in fact, with the soldering. It was almost perfect, but not quite there.

"It was really interesting to be thrown in and [be told] 'Ok, here's a project that's maybe 60% done, maybe it's 90% done, we don't know, but here's the kid who did it and you guys go figure this out,'" he said.

One of the reasons it's important to not only have someone like McGuire involved, but keep an eye out for the tech that's current, is because the tech changes so rapidly -- far faster than schools are equipped to handle.

By the time traditional education nails down curriculum for something like teaching Flash, that tech is probably already headed for obsolescence.

That's where Coy's philosophy of formally supporting informal learning comes in.

"The school day is a great exposure, a great place for you to sample all these different types of things, and then the out of school time is when you need to do the deep dive and really develop that skill in a focused way," he said.

And whatsmore, McGuire said it shows kids application. He has plenty of his own memories of being told to do things a certain way, just because that's "how they're done." Like math, for example.

"I think what that misses out on is dealing with the kinds of problems people face in the real world," he said.

DHF's plan for the future isn't what you might think. They're not looking to expand, exactly, but rather serve as a kind of template for other cities, or even just schools to follow if they want to create a makerspace.

Coy said they provide training workshops for staff, start considering spaces, help them figure out how to evaluate and measure their impact, and articulate who they are and what they do.

They've had interest from other cities wanting to learn about what they do, and Megan Smith, CTO of the United States has even been by to visit.

McGuire pointed out that DHF is, in a sense, open source.

"A lot of technology and the things that folks are playing with at DHF are based on open source," he said.

And that's the way they're able to teach those kids those topics, because all that info is available.

"The fact that they're building off open technology and then turning that into the next step of what is the open version of what they're doing -- I think that's going to be really powerful," McGuire said.

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