Tonight a former South Baltimore rec center is re-born as a tech center. Work — paid work for clients whose fees will help send students to college — will happen there. But there will still be plenty of play.
Focused on after-school programming and workforce training for city public school students, The Digital Harbor Tech Center, was built, and its programming designed, for "exploration and discovery," organizers say. It's why the tables are on wheels and, even after months of planning, the precise activities done on them, tech director Rose Burt said, are "going to depend on what the kids are interested in."
The public — and, with finishing touches, including the sign, completed only yesterday, many participants — will get their first look at the retrofitted South Baltimore Recreation Center at 6 this evening. Still owned by the city, the tech center, located across from Cross Street Market, is run by the just-over-year-old nonprofit Digital Harbor Foundation with private and public support.
Tonight's two-hour grand opening will include student-led tours of the facility — 40-some desktop, laptop and tablet computers including iPads and Microsoft Surface tablets, a digital fabrication shop, and outdoor garden space are among the amenities — as well as demos of projects — from 3D printing to DJing — students have completed in foundation programs like those that will be held at the center.
Students will start regularly meeting at the center next week. Evenings, the space will be available for community events, such as tech group meetups.
While students will help steer — that's where DJing came from — driving the tech center's curriculum will be the needs of businesses and consumers. That means developing hard skills needed for growing sectors like cyber security, Web and mobile app development and digital fabrication, and soft skills needed to adapt to all that's rapidly changing in any industry.
Digital Harbor Foundation co-executive director Andrew Coy portrays the center, born about a month after the death of the Sparrows Point steel mill across the harbor, as a means of recalibrating education and workforce development for the 21st century.
"It's really about connecting local youth with technological opportunities and creating new ones," said Coy, a former teacher at nearby Digital Harbor High School, which is independent of, but works closely with the foundation.
The center will serve students K-12. Even before a child can fully read, he or she can start to learn HTML, the language for creating Web pages, Coy said, detailing a lesson where students draw a human form to represent sections of a Web page such as the , where the title and tags for search engines go, and , where the main content resides.
By empowering students to create and solve real-world problems, center organizers hope to make the concepts they learn less abstract than they might seem in a traditional school setting.
It's not, The Pythagorean theorem will help you someday, it's, the Pythagorean theorem will help you do collision detection for the computer game you're building today, said Shawn Grimes, who, with his wife Stephanie heads up the center's student-run Web development studio, known as the STEM Engine.
Experience and money for college
As they learn, mostly high schoolers, though eighth-graders and college students may also participate, will develop websites for organizations just getting started on the Web or who need help optimizing for mobile, said Shawn Grimes, who with Stephanie runs after-school app development programs in Baltimore County through their company Campfire Apps.
The money students make though STEM Engine will be placed in a scholarship fund they can draw from upon graduation to pay for education, housing or startup expenses.
Another signature program at the tech center is its maker lab, where students will programmatically design and create objects with 3D printers, computer-controlled mills and other digital fabrication tools. Rapid prototyping, customizing parts for businesses or products for consumers, modeling and illustrating abstract concepts like mathematical models are among the many applications of this emerging technology.
3D printing is, as the name suggests, not unlike printing a letter or picture. But instead of a word processor or image editor and ink applied to paper, you use a modeling program and plastic or metal layered together.
A key advantage, and why the approach is known as additive manufacturing, as opposed to subtractive, is that "You only use the material that you need to use," said Jan Baum, director of Towson University's Object Lab and creator of the center's 3D printing curriclum.
Developing agile thinkers
If that sounds futuristic, know that "bio printing" functional organs could be as close as 15 years away, Baum said. In the meantime, the STEM Engine's websites will certainly have new screens — really big screens, really tiny screens, or variable screens — they'll have to be adapted for.
But that's the nature of technology. And by teaching students how to learn, to love learning and to solve problems that haven't been solved before, as Coy puts it, it's what the tech center was built for. Remember, the tables are on wheels.
"The tech today may not be the way things are going to be," Baum said, "but we are teaching people to be agile."