Maggie Campbell, Sabriyah Stallion, Timothy Rice and Aaron Williams, clockwise from right, program robots in a robotics class at Tech Town's winter break camp in the Edney Innovation Center in December, 2017. Tech Town offers technology-centric camps and education for children in subjects ranging from video production and computer coding to electronics and robotics.

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Bridging the digitial divideTech Town broadens broadband connections

The Martin Luther King holiday in January may have been a day off of school for most students, but for many kids and their parents who came to TechTown's second-annual MLK Day Pop-Up camp it was a day of a different kind of learning.

By playing with battling robots, building simple electrical circuits or using TechTown's video equipment, children and youth experienced the wonders and challenges of today's technology.

"All of this is hands-on tech," says TechTown CEO Chris Ramsey. "We bring all of this technology for the community to experience."

You may remember the first time you swiped your finger across the screen of a smartphone or computer table to change what it displayed.

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"I feel like kids come out of the womb with a finger swipe. They know how to do that," said Jessica Wells, who brought five kids ages 8 to 3 to the event — all of whom took robot controllers in hand.

"Anything on a computer is fun for kids," said Wells, who recently moved here from Colorado. "They're having fun."

Remeca Harris brought her sons, a second-grader and sixth-grader at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.

"I think this a good program," she said. "I think this is good for them."

TechTown began in the summer of 2015 as a way to turn that childhood eagerness for tech gadgets and play into the skill sets for Chattanooga's emerging Gig economy. Through camps and seminars for those aged 7 to 17, GigTank was created to help orient and begin the programming and tech training for the computer and tech jobs of the future.

Chattanooga boasts the fastest internet speeds in the Western Hemisphere through its lightning-fast, publicly run broadband network that has attracted a lot of tech talent to the city. But as the self-proclaimed "Gig City" builds an economy around technology, there's still a gaping divide between those who are tech-savvy and those who aren't.

About one in four households in America still lack internet access, either because it is not available, is not affordable or is not understandable or appreciated. Even among those with internet, many persons lack the training or skills to harness the potential of the new web-based world.

TechTown was created to change that.

"The goal is to get as many young people as possible started early in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] or STEAM [science, technology, arts and math]," says Chris Ramsey, a former manager at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee who was hired last year as CEO of TechTown.

Ramsey said he has been involved with TechTown since its start when he enrolled his two boys, then age 13 and 11, in the program to try to give them a more enriching summertime experience. In addition to summer camps, TechTown runs a technology learning center that provides a variety of programs, including school learning partnerships during the school day at a half dozen schools in Hamilton County, and after school programs at other schools.

TechTown also provides an after-school program at a variety of area schools and regularly has groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Boys and Girls Inc., in its second floor facility in the Edney Building at the hub of Chattanooga's Innovation District.

TechTown and another one of the tenants in the Edney Building, Tech Goes Home, operated by the Enterprise Center, also offer adult digital literacy training programs. Tech Goes Home teaches low-income persons without computers how to use and access the internet and makes low-cost computers available to graduates.

In partnership with the city, TechTown also provides a 7-week, tech workforce boot camp for unemployed and underemployed adults to get help learning how to code computers.

TechTown Chattanooga plans more than 20 programs in 2018 to reach out to those without internet connections or experience. The nonprofit is doing so, in part, with the aid of a $10,000 grant given to the nonprofit at the end of 2017 by Comcast, the nation's biggest telecom provider.

Over the past six years, Comcast says its programs to offer lower-priced broadband to low-income families and communities, schools and other institutions has connected nearly 12,000 more Chattanoogans to the information super highway, helping to bridge a key difference among Chattanoogans in their ability to compete in today's digital economy.

To help connect still more Chattanoogans, Comcast in December gave away 50 laptop computers to students at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and pledged $10,000 to Chattanooga's Tech Town for programs to provide digital literacy to help more persons understand how to connect and use the internet.

Simmons said Comcast's Internet Essentials is the nation's largest and most comprehensive high-speed internet adoption program for low-income households. It provides low-cost internet service for $9.95 a month; the option to purchase an internet-ready laptop computer for less than $150; and access to free digital literacy training in print, online and in person.

Nationwide, Internet Essentials has connected more than 3 million low-income Americans to the internet.

"We maintain an unwavering commitment to address the barriers to broadband adoption across the communities we serve," Comcast Senior Vice President Tina Simmons says.

Without internet links in the home, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy Principal Elaine Swafford said students often can't do their homework. Launch Tennessee President Charlie Brock said internet service is needed for persons to find out about and apply for jobs and for consumers and workers to learn, shop and participate in the e-commerce era.

"Our ability to grow as a community is directly dependent upon how we address this digital divide," Brock says.

Simmons likened those without internet service to households in the past that lacked running water or electricity.

Many are not connected because they don't understand or are confused by the technology and need help, such as what Chattanooga provides with programs such as Tech Goes Home and TechTown.

"The Internet is essential for everyone," Ramsey says. "Our task is to help more people understand and have access to this technology and the jobs of today and the future."