The Digital Harbor Foundation: From Rec Center to Tech Center

Digital Harbor Foundation Grand Opening

“Our story begins when a few educators in Baltimore learned that the city was closing the nearby Rec Center. The closings were due to the financial constraints of the Baltimore school district budget. Two blocks from one of the most recent Rec Center closures, however, a technology teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools had a vision of revitalization. His vision found a way to re-imagine the role this underutilized space could fill by converting it from a Rec Center into a Tech Center, where youth could learn a wide variety of high-growth, tech-sector skills such as digital fabrication, web or app development, and electronics. To turn this dream into reality, it would take a team of passionate, dedicated individuals countless hours and a number of miraculous convergences.”

A few of the cast of characters, and contributors to this story, include:

Andrew Coy – Executive Director: The teacher with the vision for what could be and the one responsible for setting the course, fundraising, and working with the team to make it all come together.

Shawn Grimes – Director of Technology: Long-time technologist with wide range of experience from cyber security, web programming, and app development to author, and digital fabrication expert.

Steph Grimes – Director of Curriculum: Educator by training with experience in app design and program implementation, responsible for translating the technical into the approachable.

“Back to our story… Six of the more than twenty Rec Centers that were slated to close happened to be physically attached to elementary schools. School administrators were able to make arrangements for these spaces to be transferred to the control of City Schools and remain open, being utilized for a variety of purposes from simply expanding classroom space for the school to maintaining them as an operating Rec Center.”

Save The Rec Center!

Andrew Coy, who was at that time a City School technology teacher, ran around sharing his vision of how this space could be transformed from a Rec Center into a Tech Center. Soon, a small team had gathered

It was Coy's vision that acted as the seed of the Digital Harbor Foundation.
It was Coy’s vision that acted as the seed of the Digital Harbor Foundation.

around this shared vision and with the support of local industry leaders, philanthropic organizations, and the City Schools, this dream became a reality as the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center was born.

The news of these efforts spread quickly. Numerous educators wanted to learn more about Digital Harbor’s success and how they could do something similar in their classrooms, schools, and communities. In the 18 months since the DHF Tech Center opened, more than 1,200 individuals from around the country, including program officers for national organizations, teachers or administrators from individual schools, district superintendents, state and federal government officials, entrepreneurs, and technologists all came to tour the space and learn from the Digital Harbor Foundation’s team.


The Digital Harbor Foundation has created a wide variety of programs serving youth from first through twelfth grade. One program, FabSlam, provides an introductory experience in the form of a competition, designed to provide more youth with opportunities to learn about 3D printing. This challenge-based experienced involves a 6-8 week process that allows a team of students from any middle or high school to form a team, get paired up with a local “Tech Coach” for support, and then compete in a challenge centered on a given innovation theme. Topics for past FabSlams have included “Wearable Technology”, “Play”, and “Travel”.

Hard work and brainstorming are common sights at DHF.
Hard work and brainstorming are common sights at DHF.

“These competitions do far more than provide an opportunity for youth to explore a topic,” says Andrew Coy, Executive Director of the Digital Harbor Foundation. “They provide a context in which learning has real-world application. Each youth team has to answer the question for themselves: What do you want to build and how do you want it to work? They have to learn to explore, experiment, innovate, and iterate — all of which builds true learning confidence.”

“A confident student is a confident employee,” adds Shawn Grimes, DHF’s Director of Technology. “This experience is part of our youth development process. Fundamentally, we are building a pipeline into tech-powered careers. They may not become a software engineer, but they will have valuable tools to help them in the workplace, whatever their career. Interestingly enough, the original Rec Centers were used by to help youth get physically fit. We are doing the same thing, but for mental fitness.”

Theme Dreaming

“How do we come up with themes? There is no magic; we just find something that’s real world and interesting, then we make it vague enough to allow for imagination. We never know what the youth will come up with exactly — which is part of the magic. Some were printing pieces of their projects and iterating on initial designs right up until the end,” explains Steph Grimes, Director of Curriculum. “Documentation of the design progress is key to this whole process. Sharing their team’s successes and failures through the innovation and prototyping process is a major part of the presentations made during the competition’s final event.”

Here Comes The Judge(s)

“Surprisingly, judges are fairly easy to find,” explains Shawn Grimes. ”There is a great tech community in Baltimore and the panel is made up of about one-half engineers or technologists and one-half educators or community members. The feedback we receive from the tech community is really positive! They are envious of the opportunities our youth have at such young ages.”

Transformative Tech

3D prints from the Afinia 3D printer hold down the fort (or paper) at DHF.
3D prints from the Afinia 3D printer hold down the fort (or paper) at DHF.

“3D printing plays a large role in the FabSlam process. Teams have access to a variety of 3D printers at different locations through mentor relationships. At the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center, we used extensively a half-dozen or more different 3D printers,” says Coy. “The Afinia Desktop 3D Printer is a fantastic and very reliable printer — far more than have been for us. We are really excited to continue to see this industry grow!”

Community Support

“We have only been able to accomplish all of this due to the tremendous support we have received from the larger community. Our supporters buy into our vision because they visit our space and see what we are doing. They see that this is an amazing experience for young people who otherwise wouldn’t have these opportunities. They see that we are addressing a glaring gap in the current education system — bridging education and the workplace. Our work wouldn’t be possible without all of this!” says Coy. “Because of this support we are able to make all of our programs simply Pay-What-You-Can — which has successfully removed any financial barriers that would otherwise exist for these type of opportunities. Thanks to folks like Afinia and many others that have given in-kind as well! Our community space exists because of such organizations and individuals!”

To learn more about the Digital Harbor Foundation, please visit their website at