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History of Computer Challenge

by David Coupland, Executive Director. November 2004.

It was the Spring of 2000, and after 21 years of working in the software industry I was ready for a change. I'd been volunteering as a Boy Scout leader since 1991 and knew I enjoyed teaching and working with youth. I began exploring the idea of a Scouting-like program to offer after-school computer clubs to underserved youth in southeastern Michigan. To my surprise I found that no similar program existed, and Computer Challenge was born.

I quit my job in May 2000 and started working full time on Computer Challenge. It was a reckless move since we had no funding yet - just an idea. But right from the start people stepped forward to lend their support. Over the summer of 2000 I recruited an excellent Board of Directors, including Board President Barry Borgerson and Secretary/Treasurer Doug Zimmer who continue to serve in those roles today.

Our first computer club began meeting in the Fall of 2000 at Whitmore Lake High School in Whitmore Lake, MI. It was a small group of high school students. I quickly discovered that the Web activities I had developed over the summer held little interest for them, so we threw that out and started over with Lego robots. Before long some middle school students showed up along with 7th grade Science teacher Mike Krebill, who volunteered to be the Coach. In no time the Whitmore Lake Tech Club blossomed into a group of more than 20 eager middle school students deeply engaged with Lego robots. The Whitmore Lake Tech Club is still going strong today under the leadership of parent Donna Nafziger.

In the Spring of 2001 we had five computer clubs meeting at schools in Washtenaw County, MI. We held our first training day for coaches and our first Robot Challenge competition. We added new activities for Web development and Digital Video. Students were learning and having fun and the program looked full of promise. But we still had no funding and I hadn't had a paycheck for 11 months. My private commitment to myself was to start looking for a job if I couldn't secure funding for Computer Challenge within 12 months, so the end was near.

Once again people responded and things fell into place. Thanks to the efforts of Board members Barry Borgerson and Tim Mayleben we received a $250,000 three year grant from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, and a $25,000 grant from the Harry A. and Margaret D. Towsley Foundation. When we received approval of these grants I remember thinking, with amazement and gratitude, that Computer Challenge was really going to make it, at least for three more years.

In the summer of 2001 we held our first four-day Summer Institute for coaches and student gurus. Participants learned how to build and program Lego robots, and create multimedia web sites with pictures, sound, animation, and text. The Institute was patterned like a whole semester of club meetings compressed into two days for each activity. Participants learned a new technology, created a project, and participated in an event or competition.

In the Fall of 2001 we had 8 clubs meeting, and by Spring of 2002 11 clubs were meeting. During the first year I did the teaching, but in this second year responsibility was passed to the coaches at each school. We received a $50,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation and a $20,000 grant from Ford Motor Company to support expansion to these new sites. We began holding Robot Challenge and MediaFest events at the end of each semester and introduced Challenge Awards.

During the summer of 2002 we hired Megan Kinney, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan School of Information, to help develop on-line tutorials. We had too many clubs for me to teach personally and needed a way to get information directly to our students. Megan did a great job with the Flash animation tutorials and I developed the Lego robot tutorials. This was the beginning of the web site you see here.

In our third year, the 2002-2003 school year, we supported 13 clubs in Michigan and 4 clubs in Georgia. The Georgia clubs were a joint effort with Kennesaw State University, part of the University of Georgia system, to encourage more students to enter science and technology college programs. We received a $50,000 grant from SBC, a $10,000 grant from Compuware, and a $10,000 grant from Ford Motor Company to support clubs in Michigan.

That year we also hired Katy Kramp, another recent School of Information graduate, to continue work on the web site. Katy added the Web Multimedia and Digital Video sections and many other features.

In the Fall of 2003 we suddenly found ourselves unable to obtain further funding despite the success of the program. I think several factors contributed to this. The recession had hurt both foundations and corporations forcing them to cut back on grants. The No Child Left Behind Act forced schools to focus on programs that would improve standardized test scores, and Computer Challenge was never designed to do that. And the Digital Divide, or unequal access to computers between rich and poor, was no longer an important social issue in the eyes of the government and private funders.

It looked like we would run out of money in a few months. I began looking for a job back in the computer industry but without success. Michigan was one of the last states to emerge from the recession. The high-tech "implosion" had ravaged the computer industry, and when companies began adding jobs again they often hired lower-paid workers overseas instead of U.S. workers. To stretch out our dwindling funds I went to a half time salary with Computer Challenge.

In early March 2004 I had a sudden inspiration. Hiking the Appalachian Trail had been a dream since my teenage years but had never been possible due to other responsibilities. But now I was unemployed and my kids were grown. Why not hike the Appalachian Trail this year? A month later I was on the Trail. From April 4 to October 2, 2004, I walked 2174 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. You can see pictures and read about my adventure at www.couplands.net.

I had a lot of time to think things over on the Trail. I realized that youth and teaching are my true calling, and that teaching high school Math and Physics is what I really want to do. So I spent January 2005 - June 2006 earning an M.A. in Education and a teaching certificate at the University of Michigan. I started my present position as a science and math teacher at Kensington Woods High School in Howell, MI, in Fall 2006, where I also serve as coach of the robotics club.




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