Andrew Coy talks about Race for Reuse, his work at the Digital Harbor Foundation, and why technology needs a “little league.”

Imagine you run into a friend you haven’t spoken with since 2009. What’s the quickest way you’d update them on your life?

I am as passionate and driven to solve the most difficult problems facing education as ever. My after school club has grown to a city-wide initiative teaching students web development, mobile app development, cyber security, and digital fabrication. I have stepped out of my role as a classroom teacher to run the Digital Harbor Foundation and am turning a rec center that was slated to close into a brand new Tech Center.

How did you get involved with the Race for Reuse?

When I first looked at the Local Wiki examples, I was drawn to the pages about the contributors who created the content for the sites. I immediately saw something that (although perhaps not originally intended) I had been looking for and wanting to create for some time. I set to work on installing and then modifying the code to see if it could be done. In the end, what I was able to hack was our own spin on the Local Wiki platform which we called Bmore Pipeline.

Our goal with this modified Local Wiki was to help students, teachers, parents, and guidance counselors understand and engage with the local tech ecosystem for the purpose of preparing the next generation of tech workers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. We wanted to connect our students to real opportunities in Baltimore’s local tech community.

The Digital Harbor Foundation is already established, why did you get involved?

Internally we had been building a rolladex of contacts over the past year that we have been around but when we saw this challenge, and applied our own modifications to the platform, we decided this was a perfect way to kickstart a true democratization of a city-wide, long-term strategy. It made complete sense to join the Race for Reuse to start this off precisely because a campaign with a deadline forces people to act sooner rather than later. And it’s not over. We’re just now beginning to build a critical mass and have already started to see people sign up who we hadn’t known before.

How did it work out? What was the reaction?

The topics we presented as prompts on the wiki were threefold: learn about educational pathways, find mentors, and discover internship opportunities. When we looked at the numbers, on average, users were creating two pages: one about a company and one about themselves as a mentor.

What do you think drives people to be a tech mentor?

I find that that people are motivated by the prospect of making a meaningful contribution. Technologists that I know who go into schools as volunteers are often asked to spend hours photocopying or filing papers — tasks that don’t leverage their skill sets to help solve the economic problems we face as a country. Signing up as mentor on BmorePipeline is a way to tap into their desire to give back by utilizing the unique abilities they have to help foster the next generation of innovators.

With this outpouring of support, what’s your plan for activating these mentors?

The BmorePipeline fits perfectly into much larger initiatives we have — namely, the STEM League and STEM Engine programs. The STEM League is essentially a “little league” for technology that we have piloted here in Baltimore and are launching in January of 2013. The goal of the STEM League is, analogous to the “little leagues,” to promote collaboration and team work among youth around a specific skill set (in our case, we replace the game of baseball with tech challenges in categories such as web development, mobile app development, cyber security, and digital fabrication). Students who excel at these event then pursue further opportunities through the STEM Engine program (a social enterprise initiative where student get “paid to think” as they put their tech skill sets to use solving the needs of real clients). Both of these initiatives depend on a strong system of mentorship and support from the local tech economy. The BmorePipeline is a key component to helping us accomplish this task.

What role can the City of Baltimore play?

I have talked with companies here in Baltimore that have plans to grow and expand dramatically over the next two years but are worried that if they can’t find the programmers they need, they will be forced to move elsewhere. At the same time, City government officials have expressed the desire to see the unemployment rate decrease. Traditionally, these two obvious needs and goals have not overlapped as unemployed populations lack the specific skill sets growing tech companies need. Our goal at the Digital Harbor Foundation is to work to solve both of these problems through our initiatives to improve the school system by connecting students to real job opportunities right in their backyard. This will take a monumental effort and the pooling of combined resources, but it is completely doable.

One perfect example of what this looks like in practice is what we have been doing in partnership with the Parks & Rec and City Schools to transform a rec center to a tech center in South Baltimore. By re-imagining what we can do with our public spaces, we are able to reinvent what a rec center could be in today’s technology infused world. In Baltimore City, where 28 rec centers were slated to close this year, this new model has the potential to completely reinvigorate neighborhoods that have been in decline and in which the digital divide is growing wider every day. I do not believe there is a lack of money out there, only a lack of vision and passion.

To wrap up and bring it back to R4R, we’ve got to ask, why the name Bmore Pipeline?

Pipelines were absolutely essential pieces of infrastructure during the industrial revolution. They were the most efficient and effective way to transfer fuel from where it was in abundance to where it was needed most. Today’s economy, however, needs something more than just an infrastructure that transfers a commodity — it needs a system to transfer knowledge and experience. It needs a system where one generation inspires the next generation by fostering innovation, tech advancement, and entrepreneurship. It is a long journey from the classroom to the economy and students need real mentors along the way. That is what BmorePipeline is in the business of delivering.

 

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.