New Teen Tech Center at MLK

by Jim Grim

Midtown teens are about to take a unique hands-on journey into the world of high technology, thanks to generous project funding from Best Buy. As the result of a competitive process, Best Buy is supporting the Martin Luther King Community Center, 40 W. 40th St., in the construction and implementation of a Best Buy Teen Tech Center designed for youth to leverage technology to develop their own projects like IT professionals do. Project opportunities include creating art and graphic design; producing music and animation; designing science simulations; writing and illustrating poetry, stories, and film; and developing robotics, 3D applications, and electronic games.

“As more and more jobs require tech skills, it’s crucial for today’s youth to have access to the trainings and tools they need to take advantage of these opportunities,” Andrea Woods, director of community relations at Best Buy, said. “We value the MLK Center’s commitment to support our young people and better prepare them for a tech-reliant future.” The Teen Tech Center at MLK is one of 12 such projects Best Buy has planned across the country this year, and the only one in Indiana.

INTERACTIVE LEARNING

Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics says employment in all technology occupations is projected to increase by 22 percent by 2020, and demand for software developers alone will be strongest, with increases ranging from 28 to 32 percent. Starting salaries can range from $50,000 to $85,000, depending on specialties. Thus, Best Buy’s mission is to provide “a fun, interactive learning space where teens explore technology to discover new interests, collaborate with one another, and prepare for the future.”

Construction of the Tech Center began in August for the state-of-the art facility on the second floor at MLK to open this fall for youths ages 11 to 24, targeting afterschool hours and summers. The Center hosted a Silent Disco Technology party Aug. 17 to help raise required matching funds for the construction. Center director Allison Luthe says this is another career pathways program at MLK to prepare participants for living-wage jobs.

The project aligns with the Center’s Crime Prevention Plan just recently awarded funding by the Central Indiana Community Foundation. “Youth today were born into a world of technology use,” Luthe said. “We need for them to become the technology developers. In crime prevention,” she added, “we need to involve them in something more than basketball and being paid to clean up the neighborhood, so we see the Tech Center as a means to address that.”

Additional opportunities at MLK feature early-childhood education scholarships for kids from birth to age 5 and afterschool academic assistance and enrichment activities for ages 5 to 11 (primarily engaging students of nearby James Whitcomb Riley IPS School 43 with significant funding from the Indiana Department of Education). Day-long summer programming includes teen employment and reading and math instruction as well as youth enrichment activities, such as arts and crafts, conflict resolution, recreation, civic engagement, personal finance, and group games that teach team building, leadership, personal responsibility, and self-empowerment skills. The summer experience has established a track record of helping to significantly boost reading achievement scores for almost every consistent participant, MLK staff report.

FREE, SAFE, and FUN

Preparation for the Tech Center engages the teens, who Luthe says are as impatient as the adults for the site to be finished. “So far, [the teens] met with architects and engineers who put together the plans, and helped to interview project coordinator applicants,” she said. “And they’re playing with some of the production equipment now,” much of it provided by Best Buy, which also guides site construction plans and curriculum implementation. Best Buy partners with the Clubhouse Network, a collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, to connect its sites to a reported global community of more than 100 “Clubhouses” in 20 countries.

Best Buy launched its program in 2012 to build “state-of-the art” Teen Tech Centers in communities throughout the country. According to the company, “These Teen Tech Centers are free afterschool programs that provide a creative and safe learning environment.” To ensure maximum engagement, Best Buy says the Teen Tech Centers are located in high teen-traffic areas within existing community sites of selected host organizations, such as libraries, schools, museums, or community centers. They are designed to have a consistent look and feel that is fun, safe, and inviting, including teen-centric furniture, state-of-the art equipment, and innovative space design. Company employees participate as program volunteers, providing ongoing guidance and workshops. Their learning model is based on four Clubhouse Network principles:

  • Learn by Designproviding a combination of self-directed learning and structured workshops guided by trained staff and youth peer leaders, focused on experiential, hands-on activities;
  • Follow Your Interestsproviding opportunities for choice where teens care about what they are working on and willing to work longer and harder while learning more in the process;
  • Build Communitycreating a community with a culture of peer learning and equal opportunity, where young people work together with support and inspiration from peer leaders, mentors, and staff; and
  • Respect & Trustcreating a stable environment in which participants feel safe to experiment, explore, and innovate and are given the time and space to play out their own ideas.

 “Current educational research shows that adolescents learn most effectively when they are engaged in designing and creating projects rather than memorizing facts or learning isolated skills out of context,” Best Buy reports. “Leveraging the Clubhouse’s proven education model, the Best Buy Teen Tech Centers foster a learner-centered, informal educational approach that encourages participants to discover their interests and apply their own ideas. Through a combination of self-guided learning and structured training, the Centers provide teens access to resources, materials, and tools to experiment, explore, and create based on their own interests, and learn skills that help them to succeed in an array of professions in the modern workplace.”

To oversee the emerging local project, the MLK Center has hired Meridian-Kessler resident Douglas Morris as its Best Buy Teen Tech Center coordinator. Luthe said that Morris comes with a wealth of technology skills as owner of Deckademics, a DJ school in Midtown. He will help the MLK Center to eventually expand programming beyond afterschool and summers to further the career pathway options for interested participants.

“This is part of our strategy to have year-round teen programming for career pathways in a variety of technology fields,” Luthe said. “Eventually, teens might provide technology services that generate revenue and help to sustain the program. However, it will always be free to teens,” she added. Next steps include exploring potential partnerships with local universities such as nearby Ivy Tech Community College or the School of Informatics at IUPUI, and a grand opening this fall.

Jim Grim, director of university/community school partnerships at IUPUI, has lived in Midtown for 30 years. He has been widely published and specializes in education and community engagement topics.

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