Five questions with Andrew Coy of the Digital Harbor Foundation

The Baltimore Sun

A few years ago, when Andrew Coy was a teacher at Digital Harbor High School, he offered his students a chance to learn Web design. He quickly realized those sorts of extracurricular activities were lacking, even at the tech-savvy institution in Federal Hill.

Now Coy and a team at the Digital Harbor Foundation are working to create more of those opportunities for hundreds of students across the city each year. For the past year and a half, they've been doing it just blocks from Coy's old classroom, at a former city recreation center on Light Street.

As the foundation's executive director, Coy said he is working to expand those opportunities, not just through the organization's activities, but in schools and after-school programs across the region and country.

Students need the skills such activities offer — and, more importantly, the ability to creatively solve problems — for the tech jobs of the present and the future, he said.

What's your take on the future local workforce?

I think the next-generation workforce is really interested in passion-based employment. They're millennials. What distinguishes this generation that's currently entering their stride in workplaces is they want to both do something that matters — and that's defined by the individual — but they're feeling like they don't want to be a cog in the machine. And they want to work hard at it.

Part of the problem I think kids in school are facing is they're constantly being required to march at a certain pace, and even if they have a great passion or interest in something, chances are the classroom environment only touches on it for a moment, it ignites that interest, and then sort of marches on and forces them to abandon it. It's not intentional, but [with] all the requirements that exist out there, there's no requirement that allows for students to pursue things that they care deeply about.

Why do I think an informal space is powerful in the development of the next-generation workforce? It's because in the informal space, youth can spend the time to dive deep on passions they've identified, that they've bumped into in the more formal spaces.

What do you hear most often from local tech companies?

When business leaders come into the space and they interact with youth here, the sort of questions they start asking is, "Such and such student has been working on this project for how long? And they're not getting school credit for this? And they're doing this because they want to do it, and they taught themselves how to do it? All those sorts of things add up to the type of employee I want. I want someone who is self-motivated, who's going to figure it out themselves and who is just going to kind of put in their own interest and passions and focus when I give them a challenge."

The workplace looks nothing like standardized tests. Maybe sometimes that translates to fast-food places. But when you want people in a creative industry such as the tech sector, you want somebody who can solve a problem that doesn't yet have an answer. That skill set is severely underdeveloped in the current sort of educational system. It's not that the education system doesn't want to develop it. It's just sort of the way policy and reality have combined.

What did you teach and what was your experience like in the classroom?

I originally started teaching social studies. I got my undergraduate degree in history. I dropped out of college actually four times, and I was always starting these other initiatives.

I lived on a sheep farm in Germany. I served a mission for my church in Hungary. I started a nonprofit in Thailand. And I started a Web development services company for artists. To paraphrase Mark Twain: I never let school get in the way of my education. I did all these things, and what I do now is actually far more related to all the extracurriculars I did than my actual history degree.

I was fascinated with why things are the way they are. I think that really contributed to why I really reimagined what a rec center could be. The dollars and cents of it was factories needed physically able-bodied people to work in them, so a rec center made a lot of sense.

The problem is we've lost that economic imperative and haven't re-imagined it to be something that's tied to the tech work of today. Schools just haven't quite figured out how to transition to that. I hope they will, but I feel like the informal learning space can help learn the way and be the scout that figures out the path forward that the schools can then follow.

How do you connect the kids to opportunities?

It's really a whole-team effort. I feel like one of the things we have at Digital Harbor Foundation is an incredibly supportive programmatic team, all my staff and volunteers, as well as a very supportive board and the support team.

The programmatic team, they live it as well. They're living the same things we're asking the kids to do, figuring stuff out themselves, tinkering and developing new interests, and they're pulling the kids along with them. My staff want to go to maker fairs just as much as the kids do. We're a pretty intense place to work. The people that want to commit at that level, it's an environment to thrive. We ask a lot of commitment from our students as well. We're asking them to commit to initially a semester, two to three days a week until 6 p.m. That's sort of the commitment they have to make to us. The financial side of it is all just pay what you can, because we never want that to be a barrier.

What is most needed to boost your efforts?

We're not looking to scale our footprint. I'm not looking to run 100 tech centers. But we are looking to support and build the capacity of other existing spaces. There are principals, schoolteachers and out-of-school providers saying, "We want to do this; we just don't know how." That's the model we're developing, to scale impact.

While we work with 400 kids a year, that's not even a drop in the bucket of the larger need the entire ecosystem has. If we can train and develop capacity of other existing educational organizations, that number could grow to 5,000 kids, to 50,000 kids, who are benefiting from our programs even if our staff are not serving them. We're not jealous about who is working with the kids. What we're driven by is that kids get access to this, all across the region and country.

sdance@baltsun.com

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Andrew Coy

Age: 30

Residence: Remington

Education: Bachelor's degree in history from Brigham Young University; master's degree in teaching from the Johns Hopkins University

Birthplace: Wiesbaden, Germany

Family: Married, 2-year-old daughter

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