Kids teach congressman how to write computer code in Elgin’s new downtown technology center
ELGIN — One day after the last equipment for the Elgin Technology Center moved into its new digs on the second and third floor of a 19th-century building in the heart of the city’s downtown, a congressman and three city council members came there to learn how to write some computer code — with the help of some more-knowledgeable people who are 20 or 30 years younger.
Held Monday afternoon, the local event was organized by U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Winfield) as part of a nationwide project called “One Hour of Code” in connection with Computer Science Education Week.
Hultgren, whose 9- and 12-year-old sons are home-schooled, invited home-school children from around the Fox Valley to participate. About 50 people, half of them children and half adults, showed up.
Following cues from a website called csedweek.org that was put together by the nonprofit organization code.org, the participants hunched over laptops in the technology center’s second-floor main room. They worked out a succession of puzzles (such as “make the Angry Bird turn right when it reaches the corner”) that required them to enter simple computer commands.
Besides a couple dozen home-schooled kids, the participants included Elgin City Council members Terry Gavin, Anna Moeller and Toby Shaw.
And the older ones often found themselves turning for advice to the likes of Patrick “P.J.” Stephen Jr. of Elgin, a 12-year-old who already has completed one computer science course at Elgin Community College and has been a major source of programming for the champion 4-H Got Robot? robotics club that is now based in the technology center.
“Thank you to P.J. for showing me the secrets today,” the congressman said as the event concluded. “For me, who didn’t think of myself as particularly computer-literate, this showed that anyone can do this.”
“But I don’t necessarily want to give up my day job,” added Hultgren, who sits on the House Space, Science and Technology Committee and is running for re-election next year.
Marcos Marquez, a home-schooled high school senior from St. Charles, also was among the mentors.
Also heavily involved in the robotic team’s software development, Marquez said he is the son of Lazaro Marquez, who is an engineer and owns the La Huerta grocery store in St. Charles.
“I plan to go into business,” Marquez said. “But this will give me marketable skills that I can take into the business world, that show I’m unique compared to the guy who’s applying for a job alongside me.”
Carol McKellar, one of the Got Robot? adult leaders, came with her teen children Matthew and Kristen. She said the team won the Inspire Award at a recent competition at the Illinois Institute of Technology and will go on to a state robotics tournament in February.
An area filled with the team’s parts and machines shares the new 10,000-square-foot ETC space with private offices rented by small start-up tech companies plus open space with desks where — for a $100-a-month membership fee — entrepreneurs can come to work, network, hire each other for projects and brainstorm with like-minded folks.
The center moved into the rented building at 73 S. Riverside Drive after leaving its previous home in the Elgin Tower Building also downtown. Michael Copeland, the ETC’s executive director, told the city council members that by bringing tech-oriented businesspeople together and helping newborn tech companies get a solid start, the center could be a key to turning Elgin into a center for information technology.
Copeland said that when Hultgren decided to hold one of the “One Hour of Code” events in his district, the congressman decided the Elgin Technology Center would be the most appropriate place. The children and teens were invited through an informal network of home schooling families and through the robotics team.
Grow and move out
One observer was Tom Printy, whose company, Edison Avenue Consulting, creates websites, iPhone apps and Android apps. Printy rents an office inside the tech center. Copeland is one of his employees.
“This is five minutes from my home, and I can bring clients here,” Printy said. “If you have a client, you’re not going to bring him to your house. So that leaves either a coffee shop or the library, and those don’t seem professional.”
“This place looks techie, and the wiring is up to date,” Printy said of the loft-like facility, which housed a teen dance club a few years back and more recently a day care center. The ground-floor spaces below, which front on South Grove Avenue, hold a restaurant and two vacant spaces that Copeland said he would like to fill with computer-oriented hardware retailers.
Tenant James Stubblefield, whose startup business is named Reality Glue, told the council members that “we don’t want the ETC to be a place where new companies move in and stay. We want them to move out and fill some of the other vacant spaces downtown.”
But complaining about poorly maintained and out-of-date buildings downtown, Printy warned the council members that “the other landlords need to up their game. Otherwise, I’ll go to I-90 and Randall” once his business outgrows the tech center.