Inside Digital Harbor Foundation

By:What Weekly

Date:January 29, 2014

Category:Innovator Profile, Theresa Keil

Not all of us grew up with Google and smart phones at our fingertips whenever we needed them, it goes without saying that digital technology has dramatically changed our culture and is creating a new landscape for our business, media, and social lives to navigate. Some of us might feel a little wary of where this road will take us, some of us may question how prepared we will be, but for today’s youth who are growing up with digital technology as second nature, the possibilities are pretty exciting. With recent viral videos such as Goldie Blox challenging how we think about youth and innovation, I was curious to know what options are out there to develop these skills for the youth in Baltimore. I talked with Andrew Coy, executive director of Digital Harbor Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to fostering innovation, tech advancement, and entrepreneurship by helping youth develop digital age skills through maker activities and tech workforce development, located in Federal Hill, to see how he is giving kids a new competitive edge.

 

What is Digital Harbor Foundation and how did it get started?

DHF was founded in 2011 by Sean Lane, a serial tech entrepreneur who desired to give back by inspiring the next generation of technologists in Baltimore City. At the time it was founded, I was a high school teacher who was running an after-school club for youth and was personally involved in the tech community. Following the 2011 Education Hack Day, Sean and I met a number of times to talk about the app that my team had made during the event but instead discussed at length the issues facing Baltimore City youth and the solutions I proposed to solve them — including the transformation of a Rec Center into a Tech Center and the crucial role out-of-school-time could play in creating a pathway into tech careers for youth. I brought Shelly Blake-Plock into the conversation and together we launched the Digital Harbor Foundation in a totally new direction — focused on developing a holistic solution to problems we saw in the education system.

 

Why are digital skills so important for young minds to learn?

It is painfully obvious that digital literacy is fundamental to a successful career in the 21st Century. What is more difficult to decipher, however, is the best pathway for a youth to develop these necessary skill sets, which include things such as grit, determination, learning how to learn, digital communication, social networking, and a host of other interpersonal, team-centric, and information-savvy aptitudes. One’s abilities in these differentiating skill sets, however, is not easily assessed in traditional, standardized multiple-choice questions. Nor is this something that can be taught through a traditional text book. Yet, in schools in Baltimore and around the country, a formulaic and ultimately ineffective approach is the norm and expected. Consequently, we see and hear all the time about a chronic shortage of tech talent at companies both large and small. Drilling a bit deeper into this, and underscoring the key motivating factor for me, is the driving force behind all that I do, namely: creating a pathway for the youth of Baltimore City into high-growth tech-sector jobs — ending the cycle of poverty for every youth I possibly can.

 

What kind of projects do students work on?

Youth work on projects that involve a wide variety of technology, many of which cross over between mediums. We focus on teaching employable tech skills, such as web development, mobile app programming, digital fabrication, and circuitry. We have youth that have built CNC (computer numerically controlled) mills, 3D printers, and LED-lit interactive objects. One young lady has learned mobile app programming and is currently creating an app to teach how to write Japanese characters. Another young person designed and cut wood to have a logo and message for gift to a family member. One young man is using an X-Box Kinect and a rotating platform he is building to create a full-body 3D scanner. A small team of youth is working on a website refresh for a client. The list goes on but is as varied as the youth in our space.

What makes the courses at DHF different from the curriculum students are typically exposed to at school?

Nearly everything a youth does at school is tied to grades, a schedule, “standards”, and the lowest common denominator within a class of widely differing individuals. This is the factory model of education that was created 100 years ago and has served numerous countries very well in the industrial age. The problem is, however, that we no longer live in the industrial age — factories like Bethlehem Steel have laid off thousands, closed down, and even auctioned off their final remaining massive machinery. The most successful companies today, and the ones experience the most rapid growth; all depend on their ability to innovatively solve problems. Learning to ask questions, think differently, and solve complex problems is not taught or rewarded in a typical school in Baltimore or around the country. This is not because teachers do not want students to do so, but rather a result of increasing number of “high stakes” tests, increasing focus on standardization, and a instructionalistic approach to learning. At the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center youth come after school, on their own time, and with no credit, grades, or other externally motivating factors, they explore career possibilities and real-world opportunities. This maker space for youth provides them a safe haven for creative exploration.

What types of skills do you find students get most excited about?

Youth get excited when their project has a real-world application. They are tired of worksheets, quizzes, and tests that have no lasting meaning and reduce their learning down to a cold, impersonal, numeric value. Project ideas at the Tech Center are youth-driven, with DHF staff giving input, encouragement to take it to the next level, and support. The ideal project allows a young person to continue exploring their passion (whether that is web, mobile, or digital fabrication), pushes the boundaries of what they can do, and contributes to the larger community. Throughout all of this, we require the youth to document both the process and the final product in a digital portfolio. Reflecting and sharing publicly the lessons learned is an essential component to making.

What is the future of DHF?

The Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center is the perfect lab in which to solve some of the most difficult problems facing the education system. The demand for what we are doing is far greater than the limited number of individuals we serve directly. Our reach and influence, however, is beginning to extend far beyond one brick-and-mortar presence as others benefit from the model we have created. Already programs such as WebSlam and curriculum such as our Mobile Game Development has been taken elsewhere (both by our staff and by other staff to whom we have provided technical support). In Baltimore there are anchor institutions looking to support the expansion of our programs to other locations and we are working with both local and national institutions to create a playbook to help others follow our lead. We are committed to helping good ideas spread and are not jealous of who actually is doing it — we are happy to play our part.

How can people get involved?

There are a number of ways folks can get involved in what we are doing at DHF. If you have time to give, we would love to see you down at the Tech Center working with youth in any number of ways, including:

  • Tech Coach — individual with specific domain expertise to work on a short-term basis with specific number of youth
  • Mentor — irrespective of one’s technical abilities, there is an opportunity to support a youth through mentoring, meeting with a specific youth at least monthly over a period of time to help direct, connect, and support their development.
  • Event Volunteer — there is always something going on at the Tech Center and we are always happy to have volunteers for single events, days of service, or other isolated events.

If you are interested in helping to support us financially, we welcome both small and large contributions. Individual giving can be done through our rally.org/digitalharbor page or by reaching out to me directly (andrew@digitalharbor.org). We are happy to apply for opportunities, such as grants and awards. If you know of any, please send an email my way.

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