To what did your summer camps do this year? Make lanyards? Play Capture the Flag? Sand paintings? The kids of Laredo, Texas, were busy making movies and building robots, thanks to Tech Rec, otherwise known as the Lamar Bruni Vergara Technological Recreation Center.
Only the second such facility in the country, this inner-city recreation center is devoted almost entirely to tech programs, from filmmaking and robotics to computer graphic design, Web-site development, and getting the most out of the Internet.
"With recreation programs, we are always trying to stimulate children in a physical sense, but we wanted to stimulate their mind too and do something really out of the ordinary," explains Anita Stanley, recreation centers manager for the City of Laredo Parks and Recreation Department.
Stanley and the Laredo Rec Department had big plans for a technological center after visiting a similar facility in Austin, Texas, but they remained that—just plans—until the department received a grant for several million dollars from the Lamar Bruni Vergara Trust charitable foundation. With money in hand, the department could build a facility tailored to its tech needs. Luckily, the department owned a two-block piece of land that had not yet been developed because an existing recreation center was only 14 blocks away. Just a few blocks from a major expressway, the location also ensured easy access to residents throughout the city.
Tech Rec is in its second year, going strong and adding programs as its staff continues to get a sense of what works. One lesson learned: Kids need a little guidance choosing topics for their filmmaking ventures. Until the staff began giving the groups a few themes from which to choose, some tended to migrate to student-in-peril stories frighteningly close to modern headlines, with nerdy kids battling outcasts seeking to wreak havoc and violence in their schools. Instead, the most recent epic—at 90 minutes the center's longest yet—featured a takeoff on the recent Will Smith sci-fi flick, I, Robot.
The staff even sneaks in literacy when no one's paying attention: In a popular screenwriting session, Stanley recalls, the children had to bring in their favorite books. Their group then voted on which would be developed into a screenplay. Because of their reading, the class could get more involved in character development, she notes.
Tech Rec's film and video students also have been able to create kid-centric newscasts, which the district's youth committee helped direct based on what they're talking about and what they like to do. With segments on topics such as drug-testing in Laredo's schools, it gave the staff an eye-opening peek into issues that really matter to teens.
A creative-minded staff of two full-time and two "almost-full-time" employees, eager to learn, has helped bolster the center's success, Stanley notes. She purposely chose kid-friendly, helpful employees, rather than "techies," she says, to drive the program and has encouraged continuing education.
"They've learned so much, including some major special effects," Stanley says. "The other day, the staff told me, 'Yeah! We know how to create fire!'"
Staff brainstorming sessions led to another popular offering: robot building.
"Kids constructed robots out of steel, other metals and polymers and then programmed the robots on the computers," she explains. "Then they had to dismantle them and use all the components for group projects, making a robot walk, roll and pick up a glass of water or other tasks."
Beyond filmmaking and robotics, Tech Rec offers Web-page design, video production, comics creation and newspaper design. Classes are limited to 10 to 12 children, since the staff found that larger classes caused too much disruptions and too little consensus. The students pair up with two kids to a computer in the labs, which include one Apple Macintosh room and one PC room with Dell computers.
Tech Rec's programs also blend science, art and history by using thematic approaches. A few recent ones included celestial navigation (paired with a trip to a new area planetarium), alternative fuel sources and discovering Laredo. In the summers, camps like filmmaking run daily in month-long classes, while during the school year, the center also offers assisted after-school use of the computers, to ensure the kids learn by their Web surfing and don't just play games.
While much of the programming centers on children, Laredo's adults have plenty to learn at Tech Rec as well. One especially popular seminar, "Gigabytes, Megapixels and Flash Drives, Oh My!" helps adults wade through the sea of sales babble and tech drivel to understand what they really need for a home computing system. Meanwhile, "Is the Internet a Vast and Scary Place?" helps them get the most out of Web surfing.
And since no recreation department would want its charges sitting in front of computers all day, the Lamar Bruni Vega facility complements its tech toys with a rock-climbing room inside and an Olympic-size pool covered for year-round swimming outside.
With a high-tech bag of tricks to lure them, Tech Rec has been an effective way to get kids off the street in this South Texas city of about 200,000 sitting just across the Rio Grande River from Mexico and its sister city of Nuevo Laredo.
"We're competing with a lot of stuff out there," Stanley says, "but this is really cool."