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Stephen Smith, 9, reacts as a robot reacts to his name tag being placed in front of its sensors during Tech Town camp at the Edeny Building on Thursday, June 29, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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It's 'Game on' for students at TechTown this summer

Tanner Mayfield has played a lot of video games over the years, but last week at TechTown was the first time he got to take a crack at developing his own game.

"I've got a lot of ideas in here," Tanner said, tapping his head. "I now get to make them come true."

Tanner, 12, is just one of about 70 students who filled TechTown last week, learning how to program robots, design video games and produce movies during its eight-week summer camp.

And what kids get to experience during TechTown's summer camps is just a taste of what students in five Hamilton County public schools experience throughout the school year through the nonprofit's Learning Partnerships.

TechTown partners with Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, East Lake Academy, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and The Howard School to boost science, technology, engineering and math education, known as STEM.

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For more information about TechTown, visit gotechtown.org.

Chris Ramsey, TechTown's CEO, said the nonprofit organization's mission is to work alongside schools to develop young innovators and provide kids access to state-of-the-art technology.

"We're getting students' minds to think about what's possible, not what's impossible," Ramsey said Thursday. " ... It's all about exposure."

Sitting in TechTown's new space on the second floor of the Edney Building, the hub of the downtown Innovation District, principals involved in the Learning Partnership talked Thursday about how the program is boosting student engagement and success.

Lakesha Carson, principal of East Lake Academy, said she's watched the partnership with TechTown energize students and teachers, and classes throughout the middle school participate in a variety of activities and lessons with TechTown.

It's important for students to get outside of the building and learn through field experiences, Carson said, adding that she's seen the program boost confidence in her students and inspire teachers.

High school students also thrive at TechTown, said Chris Earl, principal at Howard. He said the Learning Partnership has helped students strengthen their critical thinking skills and ability to work collaboratively, as they are constantly working with their classmates on projects.

"It's preparing kids for the job market and helps them be competitive in the ever-changing workforce," Earl added.

LaFrederick Thirkill, principal at Orchard Knob Elementary, said he appreciates how TechTown's programs build upon academic standards, giving kids a chance to put into practice what they're learning in the classroom.

"It opens new avenues for students to create," he said.

Thirkill and Carson both noted that TechTown provides a strong model for how the private sector and business community should partner with schools, adding that the program provides important enrichment and support that can't be funded through their tight school budgets.

TechTown has served more than 5,000 students since opening its doors three years ago, and this summer alone kids from more than 65 schools across the region have participated in TechTown's programming.

Ramsey said TechTown is looking at ways to expand, noting that it started its first class for adults this spring and has been asked to bring after-school programming to at least 10 of the county's public schools. TechTown also plans to continue holding pop-up camps for kids across the county.

During summer camp last week, Kelby Barnett, frantically typed code into a laptop, excited to make his robot move across the floor.

"I have to hit this and then this," he said pointing at arrows on the keyboard. "And then watch, I hit the spacebar and it moves!"

Kelby, 8, high-fived a fellow camper when his robot did just what he commanded it to, moving 10 centimeters across the floor.

"I really like coding the most," Kelby said. "It's a little complicated, but fun."

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.

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