(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series exploring a new initiative, launched in Chattanooga, that could soon find its way into other cities across Tennessee and the country. Today’s article explores Tech Town through the eyes of Paul Cummings, its inspirational leader.)
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
“To not teach children to code is a crime,” Paul Cummings states unequivocally.
The New Orleans native, who now calls Chattanooga home, is bringing all of the passion and energy he’s gained through a highly successful career in sales training and motivational speaking to a new initiative named TechTown.
Over coffee at a Starbucks in Downtown Chattanooga, the energetic business executive asks and answers in rapid fire succession questions that start with two simple words – “What if?” The topics explore the experiences of a seven-year old – the first time she touched a Raspberry Pi computer, used MakerBot to print something, wrote a storyboard, or edited a video.
“It’s the power of imagination,” Cummings says of the innate strength of young people that he wants to unleash with TechTown. “We want to activate the imagination, provide innovation, and let education collide.”
For Cummings, it’s not a concept that he just decided to pursue recently. He says he’s had a vision for 10 years to do something to change kids. He recalls coming-up with ideas at all times during the day and night and pasting Post-It Notes all over his garage.
As he discussed his vision, Cummings asked another question: “What if it was truly a level playing field, open to all socio-economic groups?” His answer was that it had to be.
Now, after Cummings and his colleagues pilot-tested the TechTown concept earlier this summer, they will launch a full-scale program in mid-spring in Downtown Chattanooga.
“We can’t wait,” he declares emphatically, referencing both the initiative itself and the opening day. “We are making progress in public education, but not fast enough.”
Cummings emphasizes that TechTown is not a competitor with existing public and private education, but a collaborator.
“This is not to replace a school, but to ungird schools,” he explains, noting that he talked with educators as the concept was finalized.
TechTown is also not a daycare. Instead, it’s a year-round after school concept designed to engage kids, starting at age seven, through a project and portfolio focus.
“By the time they go to college, they’ll have a huge portfolio,” Cummings says, adding that it could be items they made with 3D printers, videos they created and edited, or anything else that involves computers and coding.
In fact, participants in the two pilots run this summer left with a portfolio. They built an app, did a 3D design, and made a short film during their three-day camp.
The experience of the 64 students in the two pilot camps validated Cummings’ belief that anything was possible with year-round access.
When TechTown opens, it will have a maximum of 400 memberships available. Twenty percent of those will be funded by scholarships so that Cummings and his partners can address the level playing field need. Others will pay $2,995 annually or $295 a month for the year-round programing that is divided into four age groups.
TechTown is a manifestation of Cummings’ career in sales, training and motivational speaking. He is the Chairman of Woople, LLC, an online sales training provider, and Owner and Chief Executive Officer of Paul Cummings Worldwide.
It’s only natural that he believes there will be interest in expanding the TechTown brand to other communities and, as you might imagine, spin-offs from the core idea that are possible.
Ironically, Cummings returned to his old hometown – New Orleans – to find and recruit TechTown’s “Curriculum Rock Star.” We’ll talk with the new arrival in Chattanooga in the second article in the series.