Digital Harbor Foundation is frequently held up as a model for turning a former rec center into a youth-focused maker haven offering tech programming outside of school time. Leaders have sought to extend its work beyond the Federal Hill tech center as a result, and the Baltimore nonprofit is beginning a new effort this month to help other communities around the country who want to undertake similar transformations.
The Rec-to-Tech National Design Challenge will provide curriculum, training and technical support for municipalities interested in starting up maker or computer science programming in rec centers, said DHF executive director Andrew Coy. Communities that already have budget set aside for such projects will also have a chance to receive matching funds through the program.
The challenge was first announced at this month’s CSForAll Summit in Detroit, where Coy took the stage with Kumar Garg of Schimdt Futures, a philanthropic initiative created by former Google CEO Eric Schimdt and Wendy Schmidt. Schmidt Futures is providing an initial $200,000 in backing for the challenge. Additional partners include the National Recreation and Parks Association, the National League of Cities, and the Association of Science – Technology Centers. It also builds on DHF work funded by the National Science Foundation.
“Digital Harbor is an inspiring example of how cities can use their rec centers in innovative ways to give children the tools and skills to code, make, and invent,” Tom Kalil, Chief Innovation Officer of Schmidt Futures, said in a statement. “This initiative will give more communities the opportunity to get involved, and demonstrate how a rec center can create a brighter future for more young people.”
Applications opened this week, and are being accepted on a rolling basis through March 15, with the first deadline coming up November 15. Municipalities will have to submit a letter of intent from three partner organizations looking to help create such a space. DHF is looking to select a cohort of finalists from who will receive the resources to assist in creating a new space.
In looking to expand its work, DHF has sought to provide resources and empower other communities, even as the nonprofit has said it’s not looking to open additional centers. That holds true with this challenge.
“We ourselves are not looking to run these spaces…We’re in love with everything that we see coming from our youth and their work, and we want more communities to have that embedded in their communities throughout the country,” said Coy, who returned as executive director after serving as a senior advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration.
So the goal is to work toward creating a version of the model that can scale. In providing support and visiting other community leaders seeking to create such spaces over the years, Coy said DHF has zeroed on a specific help that’s needed in creating feasibility studies and implementation plans. The documents sound bureaucratic, but Coy said they’re key to have when talking to local funders, communicating with other workers and building buy-in from the wider community.
“The design challenge is the mechanism by which we are able to support the communities going through that process,” Coy said.
DHF will also embrace a cohort model for the finalists, encouraging the local leaders to help each other.
Coy said he’s also interested in exploring how the idea of “rec to tech” can develop. He sees room for communities to focus on specific categories of technology like wearables or digital fabrication. And while creating DHF’s tech center meant reinventing the former rec center, he’s also seeing new ways that technology is integrating into existing rec spaces. One came recently when Apple introduced basketball-focused products like an augmented reality app that can track basketball shots.
“I want kids taking the machines apart that do that and figuring out how they work under the hood and then engaging with that,” he said. Then, they can figure out how to make their own.
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