Editor’s note: Charlotte Beat is a regular feature on Wednesdays in Local Tech Wire. If a region wants to become a technology center, it needs trained workers. And, as the cliché goes, you might as well get them when they’re young.

The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, working in partnership with Advantage Carolina, has heeded those words of wisdom. In 2000, it began a unique program within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) to interest high school students in tech careers, encourage them to get advanced degrees in the field, and stay and work in the area after graduation.

What makes TechConnect unique is that it uses an after-school club format to open the world of IT to both tech heads and wannabe geeks. According to TechConnect program manager Mike Roads, he has researched other programs and was unable to find any others that were clubs.

While a Chamber group, Information Technology Charlotte (iTC), is putting TechConnect into action, the program is being funded by Advantage Carolina, an organization that created and is now implementing an economic development strategic plan for the region. According to Dee Means, vice president of iTC, Advantage Carolinas has committed $1.5 million for a five-year effort.

Comprehensive curriculum

TechConnect isn’t one of those clubs where students just hang out and talk after school. It’s a working club, meeting once a week on-site at the school for 24 weeks during the school year. A pre-set curriculum is taught, made up of four tracks:

  • Computer Hardware: Students build their own PC from scratch and load an operating system. They can take them home afterwards for $250. Advantage Carolina picks up the other $250 in costs.
  • Web Development: Students are taught how to plan, create and publish a website. Advantage Carolina provides students with their own domain name and one year’s worth of hosting.
  • Graphics and Imaging: Students learn the basics of PhotoShop or PhotoDraw, as well a how to use a digital camera and scanner and how to create streaming video.
  • Networking: Students have access to two servers and learn the essentials of networking. Roads says the curriculum for this track is being rewritten by volunteers form Cisco.

The program began as a pilot at two high schools during the 2000-2001 school year. This past school year, it was increased to eight schools: Independence, Myers Park, Garinger, Providence, East Mecklenburg, North Mecklenburg, South Mecklenburg and West Charlotte. That’s about half the high schools in the CMS system, and Means says iTC would like to offer TechConnect at more.

Pros donate time, talent

The classes are taught by working professionals from local companies who volunteer their time and talent. Different professionals teach each track, so the students are exposed to at least four professionals over the course of a year. “The students key off the strengths of the presenters,” Roads says.

This past year, some 300 students and 39 presenters participated in TechConnect. Attendance at the club meetings averaged 28.5 students. It is run like a club, with officers, and an awards banquet is held at the end of the year. A CMS teacher is always in attendance.

In addition to Roads, there is a program coordinator, whose time is primarily spent scheduling presenters. But it’s volunteers who make the program happen. There is a steering committee of 20 people, chaired by Stan Land of Duke Energy, and approximately 20 presenters from such companies as Bank of America, Wachovia, IBM and Microsoft.

Summer internships

TechConnect’s activities aren’t limited to the school year. This summer, it is sponsoring an intern program, in which 40 students are serving six-week internships at area companies. Says Means, “These are high quality students, and the companies have been surprised by their level of knowledge. The kids have taught them a few things.”

There was some concern at the start of the program that it would only attract students who were already interested in tech. But that hasn’t been the case. Roads says half the club members have taken only one or no tech classes. “It is indeed a foray into tech for these kids — and that’s what we wanted.” he says.

Contact information: m.roads@cms.k12.nc.us