Tech-Teach: The Festival’s New Youth Training Program
A stone’s throw away from U.S. Highway 50 and the Capital Beltway in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in an otherwise unremarkable industrial complex, sits a 17,000-square-foot fabrication and logistics facility that plays a central role in the production of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Our “FolkShop” is seasonal home to a skilled group of carpenters, welders, designers, artisans, and technicians responsible for designing, fabricating, and installing structures, stages, exhibits, and other elements that makes the Festival come to life each year on the National Mall.
The FolkShop is a fully stocked facility outfitted with various carpentry and metal-working tools, a scenic paint studio, a computer lab, and a storage warehouse. The tech crew keeps the space busy for four or five months leading up to the Festival, but for the rest of the year it serves primarily as storage.
We began to wonder: how can we optimize this space year-round? We could leverage those resources and the talent of the tech crew to create a workforce development program for the benefit of our community. Specifically, we wanted to provide an opportunity for young people from Washington, D.C. From there, the Tech-Teach Design and Fabrication Skills Program took shape.
Our primary motivation was to increase the employability of low-income young people in D.C.—those who face some of the highest unemployment rates nationwide—and to help alleviate the growing skilled trade labor gap. We ultimately settled on a curriculum centered on fabrication and design skills through carpentry and computer-aided design (CAD). The concept isn’t new; many American high schools offered shop class as part of standard curriculum for decades. They have been largely phased out as schools shift focus to improving standardized testing scores and preparing young people for the four-year college track. Consequently, skilled trades and vocational education have become undervalued and stigmatized.
Tech-Teach was unconventional compared to other Smithsonian internship programs, as we proposed to equip minors with power tools in addition to computer keyboards. We worked closely with the risk management and safety offices to develop a robust safety plan that protects our students from injury while providing them an opportunity to develop new skills that may contribute to an alternative career path.
We partnered with the iCAN Technical Theater internship program at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC), an organization managed by Building Bridges Across the River, which provides healthcare, education, arts, and recreational services to the in Southeast D.C. community. For ten years, its iCAN training program has specialized in theater production arts—specifically audio engineering, lighting design, video and film, arts administration, stage management, and hospitality for high school and college-aged students. For years, iCAN had wanted to include a stage carpentry and scenic design component but lacked the resources. Offering our resources, we made Tech-Teach a learning component embedded within the existing iCAN structure. The partnership was a natural fit.
In the spring of 2019, we offered an eight-week design and carpentry training course for six students held over multiple Saturdays at the FolkShop. Through a series of hands-on carpentry projects led by five instructors, the students learned how to safely use various saws, drills, pneumatic nail guns, hand tools, and other power tools. In the computer lab, they were introduced to CAD and museum exhibition and festival design. In the last week of the program, students put their new skills to the test by assisting the tech crew in the installation of several sculptures for Smithsonian Gardens’ HABITAT exhibit on the grounds of the National Museum of Natural History, which will be on display until December 2020.
“You won’t learn this stuff every day,” said Thomas, a Tech-Teach student. “So coming in here, learning it, you might find something that you love, and you might want to make a job out of it.”
Over the course of the program, students were quick to grasp much of the subject matter, were willing to ask questions about challenging topics, learned from their mistakes, celebrated their successes, and grew as designers, builders, and leaders. The program not only equipped the students with the necessary knowledge to improve their carpentry and CAD skills, but also provided an environment where they could apply concepts from engineering, math, fine arts, building arts, and, most importantly, critical thinking that are beneficial for any educational or career track.
Moving forward, given the success of the pilot program, we plan to continue our partnership with THEARC to administer two more terms of Tech-Teach in 2020, one in winter, the other in the fall. We will make some changes to the strengthen the curriculum and to improve our evaluation methods to better measure the progress we are making toward helping our students prepare for employment and career advancement.
The Binitie Family Foundation, Quinn Evans Architects, and Forrester Construction all saw the value in Tech-Teach and generously contributed to fund the pilot program. We aim to continue cultivating a diverse network of stakeholders, partners, and sponsors to support and provide training opportunities that are connected to meaningful, long-term educational and employment pathways, and hope to serve as a model that inspires other organizations to create programs of their own to diversify and expand the employment, training, and educational opportunities available for local youth in the D.C. region.
Tyler Nelson is the technical director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and director of the Tech-Teach Design and Fabrication Skills Program.