A Baltimore nonprofit is transforming an old city rec center into a tech center for students that will prepare them for the science, technology, engineering and math jobs of today's economy.

This year, the Digital Harbor Foundation opened a tech center in the same space where the South Baltimore Recreation Center used to operate. The tech center will teach students both technical and soft skills so that they will be prepared for the jobs that await them in Baltimore's tech industry.

"If you're in inner city Baltimore, they see a lot of problems, a lot of people who don't have jobs," said Andrew Coy, executive director of the Digital Harbor Foundation. "They, however, know that in the tech world, there is so much opportunity, and they're saying, I want to be part of that."

Two years ago, the city's 55 recreation centers were slated to be closed or consolidated under a plan approved by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The city could no longer afford to operate these centers, which at their heyday, numbered 150, Coy said. In the Industrial Era, the city opened these centers to keep kids fit for future jobs in manufacturing and provide a safe place for children whose parents worked second shifts at nearby factories.

But in today's knowledge economy, the rec centers no longer made economic sense for the city to run, Coy said. That's why the Digital Harbor Foundation decided to match the centers up with the economic needs of today.

The foundation is working with the Baltimore City Public School System and local organizations including FutureMakers and Code in the Schools to make learning exciting for students after school. These partnerships now allow students from first through 12th grade to take charge of their own learning.

"I think it's a pretty powerful example of the way that the resources in the community are coming together around this perception that our kids are very capable and really interested in their own learning and able to do amazing things if they get a little bit of support," said Michael Sarbanes, executive director of the Office of Engagement in the Baltimore City Public School System.

These students are learning how to make things that help their communities. For example, students are learning how to develop websites, work with code, create apps for mobile phones  and print phone cases with a 3-D printer. During a weekend hackathon, they volunteered to build websites for nonprofit organizations.

Learning how to learn

The foundation created a STEM Core curriculum with BatelleED and Arizona State University that guides these students on inquiry- and project-based learning. And students at the center are also going through a 12-week foundational course designed to help them learn more independently.

"The ability to learn on their own is being undermined by the approach that school has taken to delivering all of that at their doorstep," Coy said. "And so, we really want students who have learned how to learn and learned to love learning so that they can continue down that path of lifelong learning independent of any sort of exterior structure in place to force them to learn."

After school, they make things and take charge of their own learning. They can work independently, with a group and with clients on a volunteer basis. Instead of telling students when and how they will learn, the staff at the center gives kids choices and helps them figure out what they're interested in.

The staff provides the support, and the students get to experiment, learn and make neat projects. While making things is nothing new, it has become more popular recently as a way to get students excited about learning.

"Schoolwork can be just very dull," Coy said, "and yet the technology world they live in is overstimulating them with exciting things, and so, they're seeing that as an opportunity to do something fun."

By doing something fun and learning how to learn, these students are preparing to face the challenges in their world head-on and figure out how to solve them.

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.