Margaret Romer couldn’t keep the smile off of her face.
In her role as Deputy Director for the Division of Academic and Technical Education in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE), Romer is involved in developing policy that will help expand access to STEM education. At the Digital Harbor Foundation’s Tech Center in Federal Hill on Tuesday (March 3), she got a glimpse of a makerspace in Baltimore that’s offering technology education outside of the school system.
“I love this,” she mouthed to a policy adviser, as DHF Executive Director Andrew Coy explained that interacting with a handheld device doesn’t help kids develop digital literacy. It wasn’t the last time during the visit she made that statement.
As Romer beamed, Acting Assistant Secretary for OCTAE Johan Uvin appeared more nonplussed as he took in the details of the tech center tour. But the poker face broke as DHF’s Stephanie Grimes divulged the name of the all-girls tech group that meets every Friday: the Makerettes.
“That’s fantastic,” Uvin said, bursting out in laughter.
The federal officials were making a local stop as part of a three-stop swing called the “Ladders of Opportunity Tour.” Joined by Director of the Division of Academic and Technical Education Sharon Miller, policy advisers and Education Department staff, the group was looking to identify “successes, challenges, and promising models” to create educational opportunities that reach minorities.
“In particular, in cutting-edge sectors like science, technology, engineering and math, we’ll need a great infusion of non-traditional professionals, if we’re to preserve our great traditions of invention and entrepreneurship,” Uvin said.
When considered along with the SXSWedu summit that they’re organizing this week, the visit showed DHF thought leaders’ growing place in the national conversation about maker education.
During the tour, DHF student Darius McCoy showed off his 3D printer. He showed off his creation at the White House’s MakerFaire last year, so it was fitting that he got to return the favor of hosting the D.C. officials in Baltimore.
Later, during a roundtable with students and the officials, MacKenzie Smith talked about how she made her own wearable — an LED headband — while working with with the Makerettes.
Uvin said he was “deeply impressed” by the students.
“The students are articulate, poised, focused, and hard-working — the very attributes that will sustain them through their lives,” he said.
After the students weighed in, the group was joined by local policymakers like Maryland Secretary of Business and Economic Development Mike Gill, Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore CEO Tom Sadowski and Rudy Ruiz, Baltimore City Schools’ Executive Director for Secondary Education Services.
Coy explained DHF’s new emphasis on expanding its efforts with programs like the recently-debuted Perpetual Innovation Fund, which gives school clubs a chance to get 3D printers to start a business, then pay for the printer using the money they earn.
Rather than creating and operating new tech centers, Coy said, DHF is focused on using the experience gained in Federal Hill to help teach and advise others on creating similar environments. The question, he said, is: “How can we formally support informal learning?”
After the meeting, Uvin said OCTAE, and, by extension, the Obama administration, is focused on “building systems and partnerships; on sparking creative new approaches; and on scaling up what works best for our students as they go forward.
“The programs at the Digital Harbor Foundation exemplify what is needed to build a STEM workforce and technologically-adept individuals — innovation, creativity and imagination at work,” he said.