On Jan. 17, over 200 people gathered in what was once one of Baltimore's endangered recreation centers for the opening of the nonprofit Digital Harbor Foundation's new technology center, associated with Digital Harbor High School but open to all city students.
In 2011, the Mayor's Recreation Center Task Force Plan began seeking private entities to manage recreation centers that the city claimed it could no longer afford to operate. As part of the plan, recreation centers that were adjacent to schools could be taken over by those schools. Digital Harbor High School, which was Southern High School until 2002, when it was revamped as a magnet school for technological education, actually manages the tech center at the corner of Light and Cross Streets. One of its former teachers, Andrew Coy, is one of the executive directors of the Digital Harbor Foundation (DHF), whose job is to provide the technologically based curriculum, infrastructure, and programming.
Activities at the recreation center were previously primarily limited to opportunities to do homework and play on the basketball court and playground outside, and those things will continue, insists co-executive director Shelly Blake-Plock. "We're not actually taking any of that away, but rather integrating tech into those sorts of things," he says, citing a project that "is going to be teaching kids how to use Microsoft Kinect to track motion during pick-up basketball games and then draw biophysical data out of those captures."
The transformation of the unfunded rec center into a state-of-the-art "edtech" center has been dubbed "Rec2Tech"-a slogan printed on the blue shirts of the couple dozen students manning various stations around the center.
One of these students, Taiven Rumph, a 15-year-old sophomore at Digital Harbor High School, was engrossed in a laptop as a procession of speakers, including representatives from the mayor's and City Council president's offices and his former teacher Coy, took the podium.
Rumph, one of the first students to benefit from Digital Harbor's web-development program (called STEM Engine), embodies the foundation's entreprenerial spirit and has already been involved with three tech start-ups, Rigorison, Wubcrate, and Makovate. "I'm trying to build websites not using systems that are already up, like social networks and stuff," he says. "Like software that everyone can use that you usually have to pay for, but it's free."
So far, Rumph, who doesn't have a computer at home, has worked on two real-world contracts through STEM to create websites, including one for the Key Highway Community Association. He learned how to write HTML code at Digital Harbor High School, "then I joined Mr. Coy with DHF and he taught me everything he knew," Rumph says. "Before they started the tech center, I was down at their offices [on Key Highway]. Now I'll be working here three to four days a week."
Digital Harbor's Rec2Tech after-school program offers a wide variety of technological opportunies for students, including a digital fabrication room outfitted with 3-D printers, which the students demonstrated on opening night by making iPhone cases, bracelets, and figurines. Todd Blatt, who runs the business Custom 3d Stuff LLC, stopped by to check it out and said he can only imagine what the kids with this kind of opportunity might be able to accomplish when they grow up.
DHF's curriculum, which includes extensive summer training for teachers, is based around the idea that students can learn best through solving real-world problems.
"We will build an ecosystem that creates jobs, brings new families to the city, and supports workers and innovators who get the job done while driving the city's economy," Blake-Plock said to the crowd, his voice rising with visionary fervor. "This evening represents the beginning of that new ecosystem built on the idea that our collective future. . . is built on the not-so-impossible concept. Linking the way we educate our kids to the way we grow our ideas will inspire the kind of innovation that will revitalize our city. . . Let us demonstrate that educational innovation and economic opportunity are one and the same."
Blake-Plock is not alone in his sense of possibility. "Can I add one thing?" Taiven Rumph asked in the hallway as the crowds milled about eating pizza. "I want to tell Mark Zuckerberg [of Facebook] that he's not the only one with ideas."