Tech Town invites those age 7 to 17 to imagine and build their idea of the future
Taking a pre-opening tour through Tech Town, the new digital learning center for kids and adults, is like walking through Willy Wonka’s factory, only the eye-popping goodies are tech toys instead of sweets.
In one room, five 3-D printers are being calibrated and boxes of magnetically attaching circuitry pieces wait for kids to snap them together into doodads that do stuff. Across the hall is a robotics space next door to a gaming center where kids will design and test computer games or just play them.
Colors in the 23,000-square-foot space on the second floor of the Lifestyle Center at 325 Market Street are bright. Much of the furniture twists and curves like the imaginations of the 600 summer campers age 7 to 17 who will be all over it starting this week, learning 2-D and 3-D design, robotics and circuitry, filmmaking and coding. There’s also a film studio, editing rooms and a presentation space with the region’s largest cyclorama wall, a white-walled space with rounded curves instead of corners, useful for filming and photography or making presentations.
“All this is meant to invoke design thinking, creativity, curiosity, inspiration—all for the point of building something amazing,” says Cordell Carter, executive director of the Tech Town Foundation.
The idea of Tech Town is to give kids direct access to tools, both equipment and knowledge, and then let them guide their own learning. This summer will be devoted to summer camps, with individual memberships being sold beginning in August and after-school programs starting in the fall.
“This is a different kind of place, where students are driving their experience,” Carter says. “It’s not about us telling you what you should do. It’s about us telling you what you’re capable of.”
Tech Town will show kids how to use tools like 3-D printers, game design software and robotics and then ask, “What is it that you want to do? That’s just a question that people aren’t asked at younger ages,” says Carter. “Figure out what you enjoy. If you don’t like it, try again with something else. You can do different things till you find something you’re passionate about.”
Tech Town started with Paul Cummings, founder of online training company Woople. Ten years ago, when he was speaking at a high school in Michigan, he observed the worst disparity of resources he had ever seen compared to better-funded schools. As he traveled around the country, he found bits and pieces where various communities had created effective programs coding or 3-D printing or robotics, but only in isolation, never comprehensively integrated. The idea to bring all those pieces together became the spark for Tech Town.
Last year Cummings partnered with John Foy and Todd Phillips to create the nonprofit Tech Town. The three are also founding partners of venture incubator SwiftWing Ventures. In 2014, the partners recruited Carter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he was chief of staff, to lead Tech Town. Carter remembers the instant when the enormity of the vision became clear to him and he was stunned.
“I had my Charlie Brown moment…when everyone in the room sounded like the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoon: ‘wah-wah, wah-wah-wah.’” Carter says. “I said, ‘You’re going to change communities. This isn’t just about kids. There’s nothing like this in the country.’ I was at Gates. We saw everything, and there was nothing like this.”
The difference, he says, is not just in the comprehensive approach, but in the student-centric learning model and in how Tech Town aims to partner with public schools.
“One of the problems in ed. reform is that people come in with this notion that schools aren’t good and teachers are dumb,” he says. “And they forget that 96 percent of the 58 million kids in K-12 are in public schools. You’re not going to be successful until you figure out a way to partner. That was the plan from the start for Tech Town: How can we partner with schools?”
He also sees Tech Town as a feeder system for the tech talent that growing startups need.
“My goal is to be pumping out talent to the city every year,” he says. “Our job is to be sure we are recruiting from a wide base of Chattanoogans to ensure more diversity—socioeconomic, racial and ethnic—to make the city a more vibrant one as we all enter this new era of digital everything.”
For more information about Tech Town and its programs, visit gotechtown.com.
Rich Bailey is a professional writer, editor and (sometimes) PR consultant. He led a project to create Chattanooga’s first civic web site in 1995 before even owning a modem. Now he covers Chattanooga technology for The Pulse and blogs about it at CircleChattanooga.com. He splits his time between Chattanooga and Brooklyn.