(Photo by Tyler Waldman)
Over the last couple of years, the White House has held an important place for the Digital Harbor Foundation. And now Andrew Coy, DHF’s now-former executive director, is reporting to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. every day.
In his new position, Coy will be supporting the national maker movement. While the Digital Harbor Foundation started with a local focus, there have been signs that its tech center in Federal Hill has been a growing focal point of that wider conversation.
DHF students Darius McCoy and Sierra Seabrease showed off their creations, including Seabrease’s Spotify jukebox made from an upright piano, at the White House over the last two years. At the White House in 2014, the tech education org launched a new initiative to scale its programming: the Center for Excellence and Innovation.
At various points since DHF was founded, administration officials like Senior Advisor on Making Stephanie Santoso have visited the organization’s tech center in Baltimore. Earlier this year, Coy coordinated with Santoso to speak at a maker-focused day he organized at SXSW.
And in June, DHF was back at the White House as the Obama administration announced a host of policies aimed at helping the maker movement.
Coy is now taking an active role in shaping those policies.
Earlier this month, he began a new role as Senior Advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. According to a factsheet provided by the White House, Coy will have a leading role in developing initiatives to support the maker movement nationwide. Specifically, the factsheet states, he’ll be focused on “increasing tech access for traditionally underrepresented populations and spreading awareness of making among both public and private organizations.”
“We are excited about Andrew coming on board to help support the President’s Nation of Makers initiative,” said Tom Kalil, White House Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation. “Andrew has been an effective champion for social justice and empowering young people from all backgrounds to make, tinker, and invent.”
All indications are that Coy will return after a year in the full-time position (he’s commuting from Baltimore instead of relocating). Shawn Grimes, who started as DHF’s Director of Technology, will serve as interim executive director. He’ll oversee the team of fewer than 20 people, which is looking to hire two more. Grimes, who along with his wife Steph joined DHF in 2012, said the focus for the year will be mostly internal, as many big initiatives have already been launched.
Given the organization’s focus on the community, however, there will inevitably be new ideas. Earlier this month, Grimes and McCoy, the DHF student-turned-staffer, rolled out 3D Assistance, a group to help others in the community should they have issues with 3D printers.
“My focus this year will be taking the things that we’ve found stick, making them more refined, getting them out of our heads and getting them in documents, blog posts and resources that others can use,” Grimes said.
The former rec center that houses the Digital Harbor Foundation is increasingly a buzzing hive of activity. There is the daily work of giving Baltimore students access to 3D printers and Makey Makeys, training sessions for instructors who want to incorporate the technology education and hosting visitors from around the city or out of town who are equally curious about the organization’s work.
As far as this particular nonprofit is concerned, this is the only center of its kind. And that’s by design. During an interview at the Tech Center in October, Coy said that the organization has seen the potential to expand its “rec to tech” model.
“From the very beginning, our message resonated,” the former school teacher said, when he was still with DHF. “It has taken time for us to build up as an entity to be delivering on that vision.”
National attention also came early.
“Almost immediately when they opened the doors, people from all over the country were lining up to find out what they were doing,” said Jane Brown, president of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, which was an early and ongoing supporter of DHF.
In late 2013, the organization began to think about what a national organization might look like. According to DHF Board Chair Olga Maltseva Brillman, the organization’s leaders settled on the fact that, “Our expertise is teaching. We don’t want to be a rec center management organization, but we can certainly be a teaching organization.”
DHF’s Center of Excellence and Innovation grew out of that committment. Instead of opening more centers, the goal of the initiative is to provide technical assistance and training to people who can then open their own center. In early 2015, the Center also began a program to allow student groups to obtain their own 3D printers, called the Perpetual Innovation (PI) Fund. Both programs will continue to grow in the coming year.
The center’s offerings are helping locally, with DHF staff providing assistance to organizations like the Baltimore County library system and Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood.
“When I issued a call to them to possibly replicate the model there in Upton, the whole team came in,” said Rev. Alvin Hathaway, Sr., of Union Baptist. After DHF helped get them up and running, a group at the church taught 3D printing on three consecutive Saturdays. DHF has also been expanding its reach in Maryland, and even held a workshop in California.
A new type of tech ed
In talks around Baltimore and at those national events, Coy has also talked about a broader focus on advancing the idea of tech education.
At its heart, tinkering with gadgets and toying with 3D scanning is a key part of DHF’s push. In other words, the figures and games produced using 3D printers and Makey Makeys are similar to the belt sanders and table saws that used to be used to make birdhouses.
But in schools that don’t have resources for this new kind of education, or city homes that don’t have garages ready for tinkering programs, places that provide kids with these educational experiences are key. One of Coy’s oft-voiced concerns is, “How do we formally supporting informal learning?”
And especially when it comes to tech, the education that takes place outside the normal curriculum — for now, at least — has big implications for the future workforce.
“Fundamentally I think we have crossed a line in this country where there are more essential tech jobs to maintain the economic system than we are currently producing or can produce with the formal education system,” Coy said during the fall interview.
“The right guy”
Apart from policy thoughts and organizational calls, Coy’s drive is also a big factor behind DHF’s growth.
Clad in his DHF T-shirt and blazer, Coy could frequently be seen around Baltimore over the last few years at business and community events telling business leaders, politicians and others about the need for more kids to be exposed to tech education. And likewise, the Tech Center became a frequent site for citywide announcements by business groups and politicians.
“Andrew is a really extraordinary leader, and there’s no substitute for a visionary leader that knows how to get stuff done, especially in a startup organization,” said Board Chair Brillman.
That vision comes from his focus on maker education.
“He’s so in love with it, he’s so passionate about it,” said Brown, the Deutsch Foundation president. “Whether you’re a kid or a funder or whoever you are, it’s infectious.”
Along with Coy’s passion and focus on getting more programs for students, Brillman pointed to the cross-section of DHF’s community supporters including tech founders, educators, foundations, educators and economic development organizations like EAGB.
“We know Andrew is the right guy for the job,” she said of the White House role.