“All hands on tech!”
That might as well be the rallying cry at the 5th annual Tech Camp happening all this week at Central Campus. Because it is nothing if not hands on – and techie.
Each July, Tech Journey Inc., a nonprofit organization staffed by volunteers from local tech employers, and DMPS collaborate on a four-day camp for students who might not otherwise have access to technology.
Students begin the journey by invitation during the summer before they enter 8th grade and are issued a laptop computer they get to keep. They also come together throughout the year in mentoring sessions and a variety of workshops to stay in touch and continue progress on projects begun during the summer camp sessions.
Friday afternoon the first cohort of Tech Campers “graduated.”
It’s not as though there’s nothing in it for the volunteers who staff the camp and the corporate sponsors who underwrite it. The ultimate goal of Tech Journey is to deepen the pool of prospective employees qualified for the highly skilled jobs of the 21st century.
The group working Friday morning at the Area 515 Makerspace across the street from Central Campus included seniors-to-be Nadine Veasley (Roosevelt) and Robert Nishimwe (North). The setting didn’t look techie. Workbenches, screwdrivers and sawdust surrounded them. At times power tools drowned out the conversation. All of which hinted at an unintended, but positive, consequence of five years of camping for Nadine.
“Besides coding and engineering and the tech stuff there’s a lot of building,” she said. “I’ve learned how to use tools and actually make things,” in the course of developing projects that include gaming and robotics.
Still, “I might never have done any coding if it weren’t for Tech Journey,” said Robert. “It has offered me opportunities that my parents never could have known about or afforded.”
In addition to all of the hands-on practice the students get, outside experts also come in to deliver presentations. This week featured some virtual reality experience that represents a new element for Tech Camp.
“Someone from an Iowa skydiving group was here,” said Nadine. “Even though I am afraid of heights I tried it and had the sensation of everything from jumping out of the plane to landing on the ground.”
“It convinced me that I have no desire to skydive,” she said. Instead, her five summers at Tech Camp have solidified her plans to study microbiology in college and become a lab technician.
Nadine and Robert and their fellow 5th year campers have come a long way since they started. And so has the program.
“We get to work with the younger students now,” said Robert, “and we have had lots of input on everything, even including t-shirt logos.” So, rank does have its privileges, even if the younger students do get better laptops now than the trailblazers did.
“The relationships that developed between us and the mentors are different than the ones between teachers and students,” said Nadine. “We really know each other now and have contacts to help us when we finish school and are looking for jobs.”
So chalk up networking as another non-technical skillset in addition to power tooling.
Camp sponsors this year included Principal Financial Group, Banker’s Trust, John Deere, Source Allies, Visual Logic, Mumo Systems and Technology Association of Iowa.
Ben Lors is the President of Tech Journey and an IT Project Manager at John Deere.
He considers this five-year-old brainstorm a clear success even though the first batch of invitees hasn’t yet completed high school. So much so that Tech Journey hopes to expand Tech Camp in 2018 to school districts beyond DMPS.
“I tell these students they won’t be working for me someday,” he said Friday morning as this year’s cohort of 85 campers made final preparations for the afternoon demonstration ceremony that is the culmination of the week. “I’ll be working for them.”