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Tech-Geared Training Lab Incite Focus Teaches Students to Work with and Make Digital Tools

Founder and director Blair Evans' apprenticeship program is cultivating a skilled workforce of 'Maker Professionals.'

Blair Evans always had an innate ability to "make." As an elementary school student, he had a deep curiosity about how things worked and, by middle school, was building his own electronic kits. The Detroit native graduated from Mumford High and followed his dreams straight onto the campus of MIT in Boston, a black kid armed with ambition and hope.

"I grew up around the idea of 'institution building' and developing solutions," says Evans, founder of Incite Focus – a cutting-edge tech-geared training lab in Detroit. "Not advocating for stuff but actually making stuff. Part of it was the interest in the technology, but part of it was the use of technology to solve problems."

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave him theoretical problems to solve, but by the time he had graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, computer science and system dynamics, Evans was ready to meet the real world. So he started a company with one of his MIT professors at a time – the 1980s, when Massachusetts was a kind of "east coast Silicon Valley."

The kid who had "a million things" he wanted to know had created a startup that eventually went public. By the early '90s, Evans was into an eclectic mix of things – including agricultural projects – that led him back to Michigan. Specifically Idlewild, the all-black resort popular during the early 20th century till the '60s.

"I've been involved in preserving the historical basis of Idlewild," Evans says. "I kind of looped back to Detroit in 2001-02, involved in a series of projects in education and community develop work in the Idlewild area." That was a springboard to what became his passion, Incite Focus, in 2007. While Incite Focus houses a plethora of services, at its core, it's a three-month program that helps any participant become a Maker Professional – a U.S. Department of Labor-registered apprenticeship. Using the "Fab Lab" concept culled from MIT, Maker Professional trains students to work with and make digital tools. It's ideal for high school students, recent graduates, young adults, mid-career or "encore" adults and others looking for alternative training opportunities.

In Evans' experience, the "isolated, dissected curriculum" common in most schools doesn't work well for a lot of people. "Teaching generic concepts doesn't really resonate well with young folks – nor do I think it should," he says. "Folks are interested in the ability to apply themselves where they can make an impact. Incite Focus grew out of the effort to really be place-based learning, and we really thought about what would be involved in having the ability to make useful things."

Evans has watched three pivotal tech shifts over five decades: communication, computational (smartphones) and physical fabrication. The latter, he says, involves using physical objects and equipment to flexibly implement and construct systems. And, since the manufacturing world is rapidly evolving, it's a good time to get in on a field that affects employment here in metro Detroit – not to mention entrepreneurial options. Job seekers might benefit from Incite Focus's advanced manufacturing training, as well as soft skill development. At the end of the program, participants earn a journeyman's card. "It's definitely for people displaced or underemployed, or (those who) got an early buyout (and are not) ready to go out to pasture," Evans says. "It's also an entry way for people – some returning citizens, some veterans who have an idea, to collaborate with others."

For more information about Incite Focus' Maker Professional program, call 313-202-4901 or visit incite-focus.org.

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