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Through After-School Exploration, Columbus Students Become 'Local Tech Heroes'

Adora Namigadde
Twice a week, 10 students at Franklinton Prep Academy take part in "Improve Your School," an after-school program offered by Local Tech Heroes.

The final bell rings, and ten students at Franklinton Prep Academy down their ham-and-cheese sandwiches. When they're done eating, they pick up their Chromebooks and choose a desk.  

Marte’a Cunningham, a junior at Franklinton Prep, says it's been a while since she remembers exploring technology at school.

“When I was in fourth grade, I think, we went to Techie Club and we built robots and took apart printers and stuff,” Cunningham says.

Now, her task looks a little different, as the students log onto Tinkercad, a free cloud-based software that allows users to create computer-aided design models. Today, each student is designing a product of their own invention.

“I be having a whole bunch of ideas, but I just never knew what to do with them,” Cunningham says. “This is basically my first time doing all this, so I’m kind of new at it. So I might mess up and sometimes, I’ll just try to keep practicing.”

As part of the six-week "Improve Your School" program, put on by the local nonprofit Local Tech Heroes, Cunningham and nine other students stay after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays for instruction in things like 3-D printing, computer-aided design (CAD) and prototyping.

Kris Kling and Will Nickley, co-founders of Local Tech Heroes, say that demand for workers skilled in technology is growing, but tools to learn how to use those skills can be expensive and aren’t available to everyone. Local Tech Heroes tries to bridge that gap, providing technology education to students in Columbus who don’t get it through their schools.

“Once we give them the basics of this, they go home and go crazy on it,” Kling says.

Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Kris Kling, one of the founders of Local Tech Heroes, says their goal is to provide free programming that teaches tech skills not covered in schools.

Kling, 40, and Nickley, 30, say their free programming is important to their mission.

“We wanna level the playing field in Columbus and make sure that wherever you live, no matter where you were born, you get the same opportunity to learn these emerging technologies as anyone else,” Kling says.

Kling and Nickley met at the Idea Foundry in January, both eager to diversify tech. Nickley teaches at Ohio State and has a background in industrial design, while Kling served as director of technology at Marburn Academy in New Albany for 20 years. But Kling effectively retired to start Local Tech Heroes.

“My mission was, instead of helping 100 kids, I wanna help 10,000 kids,” Kling says. “How do you know you’re good at robotics, coding or 3-D printing if you’ve never tried it?”

This summer, the duo led summer camps for Boys and Girls Clubs in Columbus. They’ve worked with Gladden Community House in Franklinton, as well. And they use free and open-source software, like Tinkercad, so students can continue to use it outside of school, free of charge.

Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Will Nickley, co-founder of Local Tech Heroes, works with Marte'a Cunningham on her computer-aided model.

Three weeks into "Improve Your School," the students have so far sought out problems, designed solutions, and built physical prototypes. 

“There’s a lot of failure built into this so that they learn from their mistakes," Kling says. "Their first prototype is probably not gonna work, and that’s good because then they can go back and understand why it doesn’t work and make those changes.”

But Kling also says "Improve Your School" helps students emphasize with teachers. In a group project, the students made several prototypes of a 3-D-printed container for teachers to mount dry-erase markers and projector remote controls.

Now they’re working on their own individual projects. Nazir Lawrence, a sophomore, is designing a phone case.

Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Nazir Lawrence, left, says he signed up for the "Improve Your School" program because he wants to help solve problems around the house.

“Because I broke the front of my screen, so that’s pretty tough," Lawrence says. "I’m not gonna get a new phone for a minute. So might as well just build a case so I keep it from falling and breaking."

Lawrence says he joined “Improve Your School” because he wants to solve problems at home and eventually work in IT.

“Like when stuff be broke, or my nieces and nephews broke, so I can help her out with it and design something so I can help her out with it, so she doesn’t have to worry about buying nothing,” Lawrence says.

At the end of the six-week program, Kling and Nickley plan to leave a 3-D printer with the school. That way, kids can start to teach one another what they’ve learned and progress on their own projects.

“Our hope is this is something that can be replicated not just all over Columbus, but the United States, the world, this sort of approach to education and technology,” Kling says.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.