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Next Tech Showcase Draws Crowds to Century Center for Second Year

Walking into the Carrboro Century Center on Saturday, May 4, one of the first striking impressions was the sea of bright purple tee shirts on young people throughout the large room. The tee shirts said, “Next Tech: Student Showcase,” and they identified the 40 or more CHCCS middle and high school students who were leading the second annual Next Tech Showcase for an audience of nearly 200 tech enthusiasts. The lure was student-created VR games, as well as 2D and 3D activities, and some of the participants who arrived at the opening time of 11:00 were still engaged more than three hours later as the student hosts began packing up the equipment.

AVID students at Next Tech Most of the CHCCS students attend Chapel Hill High School (CHHS), though students from Carrboro High School and East Chapel Hill High School also pitched in. AVID teacher, Eric Zeigler, brought several of his students from Smith Middle School (SMS) to demonstrate the many links AVID has to coding and technology in general. The dozens of students served as guides, experts, and in many cases, creators of the devices and games on hand. In the middle of the expansive floor, a roped off area provided a “playing field” for children to use Spheros and other robotics, while around the room, consoles and tables of gaming equipment, Google (VR) Cardboards and Merge Cube Augmented Reality offered a broad range of experiences for both novice and seasoned participants.

Last year, Garrison Reid and Jennifer Walker, the Academy of Information Technology (AOIT) lead teachers at CHHS, joined forces with former CHCCS staff person, Darren Bell, to brainstorm visions for a community event that would highlight the many extraordinary talents and skills among their AOIT students. They reached out to the IT team at the Town of Carrboro, as well as their counterparts at the Town of Chapel Hill, and that collaboration yielded a powerful support system that provided the venue, many logistical pieces and the crucial technical infrastructure system necessary for making everything at Next Tech Showcase work smoothly and successfully.

Town of Chapel Hill business solutions manager, Janelle Bailey, said, "The Town of Chapel Hill is a proud community partner of CHCCS.  As a technology professional, it was a  personal pleasure collaborating with organizers to sponsor the Next Tech Student Showcase on behalf of the Town.  The level of knowledge and curiosity of STEM activities displayed by the student presenters was impressive.  Well done students! We are encouraged with the opportunity to see the students flourish year over year.”

Next Tech gamers As the AOIT teachers were quick to point out, the students were the ones who made the magic happen. Reid said, “The day was a showcase of student output and knowledge. From the training in the Computer Engineering Technology and Game Art and Design courses, FemStem and Tiger Tech Squad student organizations, and AVID Middle School program, the students created or were creating the content showcased at the event.” In an interview with local radio station, WCHL, two weeks before the event, Reid said the organizers really hoped Next Tech would feel like a carnival, but there would be a lot of opportunities for people to learn new things while they were having fun.

Nicole Bell is the outgoing student body president at CHHS and founder of FemStem, a club for women interested in all aspects of STEM. “One of the roles of FemStem is to be ambassadors for VR,” Bell said. “The Next Showcase is an amazing event, and I believe it went even better this year. We had more technology this year and saw so many new faces. All the student groups involved worked together seamlessly and showed how important it is to utilize student voices and give them a platform to share their work! The showcase was all about making technology accessible to the community and I believe we did just that.”

Beatrix Hutton, the CHCCS educational technology assistant at Carolina Center for Educational Excellence (CCEE), said, “I was incredibly impressed by the Next Tech Team, because these young people not only created virtual reality games and 360 experiences, which is a feat in itself, but they made it a priority to share their creations with the community for free! That dedication to accessibility and inclusivity in technology is something that I truly admire and hope they carry with them in their very bright and promising futures.”

Next Tech Spheros Reid emphasized the process of teaching that led to the students’ ability to host Next Tech. “All related district staff did a lot of in-class and extracurricular training so that the students could create the output or knowledgeably work with the technology. However, that ended before the event. All training at the Carrboro Century Center flowed from students to the event's guests. From teaching young children how to work a Sphero or a parent to properly use the VR controllers in their game, students were teaching the community how to properly interact with this technology.”

Sponsors of this year’s event were CHCCS Career and Technical Education (CTE), Town of Carrboro, Town of Chapel Hill, Lenovo, and UNC CCEE.