The CO: Opening Doors for Young Entrepreneurs in West Tennessee

The CO, a collaborative workspace in Jackson, Tennessee, provides unique opportunities for Tennessee students to learn to code and develop professional skills. We chatted with Molly Plyler, a former classroom teacher of 10 years, who now serves as the Educational Outreach Coordinator for The CO, to learn about the programs and the impact that they are having on Tennessee’s students.

Molly Plyler

What services does The CO provide for the community?
The CO was founded in 2014 and is one of Tennessee’s Entrepreneur Centers and receives much of it’s funding through Launch Tennessee. The CO provides many services to the Jackson community including coaching for entrepreneurs and startups, a collaborative workspace and public Makerspace. My passion, however, is ensuring that tomorrow’s workforce is prepared to propel Jackson to new heights in the fields of technology, engineering, and advanced manufacturing. If we are going to keep the talent in Jackson, the founders of the CO knew we would need to provide programming that engaged Jackson’s youth and helped them develop the technical and soft skills necessary to make an impact in industry right away. That’s why Dev Catalyst, our coding education program, was started almost five years ago.

What opportunities are available for students through Dev Catalyst?
We offer several different competition categories that encourage middle school students to consider different aspects of technology integration in a business. One of the categories is Physical Computing using Raspberry Pi, where students are actually building a product using code for controls. My favorite project we have seen this year was from a group of high school students who built a water system for houseplants, complete with a humidity and temperature sensor. When the environmental conditions indicates that the plant needs to be water, there is code written that triggers a pump to release water from the reservoir into the pot.

 We also offer web development categories. What makes Dev Catalyst unique is that students actually connect with a local business or organization and design the website for a client. This ensures that they are considering user experience components as well as client engagement and satisfaction.

Our third competition category is Data Dev. Data management is a huge, emerging field and everyone is trying to figure out how to manage it. Our students create an inventory system for a fictional business that needs to be able to quickly find information from large sets of data. The fact that we have students who have completed all these competitions by the time they graduate is amazing. My husband jokes that he has an advanced degree in computer science but these kids are leaving our programs just as prepared!

Students from The CO visiting the LinkedIn headquarters in San Francisco as part of a tour of successful technology companies

It seems you provide a lot of opportunity for students to learn about the careers associated with these skills as well.
Absolutely! We also provide an all expense paid trip to San Francisco for some of the winning students in each category, where they get the chance to tour technology companies and meet the leadership. This year we are actually attending a special event at the Computer History museum called “Founders and Funders” where the students will have the opportunity to hear tech entrepreneurs and financial backers discussing the process of funding a technology startup.

How did you first connect with The CO?
I was looking for community speakers to bring into my classroom, which is how we first connected. I have since switched my career focus to ensuring that our students are prepared with the coding skills to succeed in our changing world. It’s a fun world to play in!

You were previously a teacher for many years. What message would you like to share with teachers about preparing their students for tomorrow’s workplace?
I think one of the most important things for teachers to remember is that the students will always outpace us in term of technology knowledge. I think many teachers shy away from incorporating new technology in the classroom for this reason. We provide training that supports teachers in being a facilitator of technology rather than a direct instructor. This can be scary for an educator, as there are a lot of unknown variables, but when you can get to that place I have seen magical products coming from the students!

Educators, please follow the @attheCo on social media to stay up to date on all of the teacher workshops being offered this summer and we encourage you to check them out! Your students will be working magic in no time!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *