Training for next Call of Duty: TechTown cultivates creativity in Chattanooga youth

photo Tai Hall, 10, watches "The Glider Frisbee," a video he made in roughly 45 minutes at Tech Town, a program designed to educate the next generation of developers and designers, on Thursday at Baylor School's Weeks Science Building.

A handful of robots bounce up and down in front of a medieval castle daring their enemies to come forth and face them on the field of battle.

With a gigantic crash, the leftmost android explodes. Then the next one bursts into flame, and the next one, as chaos ensues.

It appears the unseen hand of the creator is at work, eliminating the machines before they can do any harm to the gentle townsfolk.

The hand in this case belongs to Cole Phillips, a student at Nolan Elementary whose fingers guide the mouse pointer from robot to robot, clicking as he goes. Phillips is learning how to create games, which of course requires him to also play his creations. You know, to test them.

Phillips is finishing up the final activity on the last day of TechTown's inaugural class, as adult supervisors in the Baylor School computer lab gently guide him to look beyond the flashy graphics to the underlying mechanics of what makes games work.

It's a program designed to cultivate the next generation of designers, developers and creative artists needed to fuel Chattanooga's entrepreneurship boom, and to ease students' passage into programs of their choice at any college in the U.S.

The brainchild of executive trainer and motivational coach Paul Cummings, founder of Woople and partner in SwiftWing Ventures, the vision is for TechTown to blossom into a facility that offers day passes, scholarships to underprivileged children and year-round activities for children whose parents care about more than reading, writing and 'rithmatic.

"It was my personal goal that our program, content and facility would bring the joy of programming, coding, videography, 3D design, robotics and graphic design into the lives of children from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds," Cummings said.

Murray Fenstermaker, the "curriculum rockstar" at TechTown, is tasked with encouraging a group of 40 kids to analyze the puzzle pieces that click together to create fun experiences, rather than just blowing up robots.

"The kids are at such an age that if they're allowed to explore, they pick it up like a second language," said Murray, who comes to Chattanooga by way of New Orleans.

Part of the challenge is teaching students to think like coders. For that, they leave the computers behind and give each other instructions similar to what they'd use with a programming language, from if-then statements to loops. For example, if an instructor raises his right hand, they give him a high five. Or do jumping jacks until the teacher turns off the lights.

Those types of instructions translate well into Scratch, an MIT-developed open source programming tool that uses pictures in the shape of puzzle pieces to simulate coding.

"Rather than teach them a specific programming language, we're teaching them to think like coders," Fenstermaker said.

Joseph Green, sitting at a nearby computer, is working on his maze game. The students draw the maze using a painting tool, then assign different values to each color. If Green's icon hits the black wall, the icon -- a rocket ship -- returns to the start grid. If the Green reaches the blue area, the computer awards him a victory.

To be sure, these are fairly simple games in an era of blockbuster entertainment launches like Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed and Uncharted that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and employ thousands of workers across multiple continents, but students must learn to walk before they can run.

The adults of TechTown, much like its first class of students, are learning as they go. The kids cheer and clap when they're asked if they had fun. When asked if they're excited about TechTown's new downtown building, which is slated to open in 2015, they cheer even louder.

"Do you want to come to our new facility that is so amazing?," asks Carmen Carson, director of TechTown. "Do you want to come to Techtown in the Spring?"

When TechTown is fully up and running at its new downtown location, the for-profit school will maintain a roster of about 400 full-time students who participate in after school and summer programs of their choice. Students can create games to sell on the Android store, learn to edit video or work to acquire the skills necessary to complete a particular project.

The school will have 3D printing stations, robotics, and graphic design.

When they graduate, they'll theoretically have a portfolio of work that places them head and shoulders above other college graduates. Or, fully equipped with the tools they need to succeed in the tech world, they could skip college entirely and start work at one of Chattanooga's numerous startups -- or start their own.

Long term, Cummings said the goal is to open up TechTown affiliates in towns across the U.S., as part of a "broad vision" he has for the concept.

"I believe for young people and children, not to code is a crime," Cummings said.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or [email protected] with tips and documents.