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Students explore Charlottesville startups on Tech Tour
Tech Tour 2016 -
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Tech Tour Photos by Josh Mandell
Tech Tour 2016 Sponsored by the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council (CBIC)
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Josh Mandell | Tuesday, October 11, 2016 at 7:52 p.m.

Local students played with sound in recording studios and tiptoed through silent computer labs during a citywide tour of Charlottesville’s growing technology sector Tuesday.

The Tech Tour is an annual, daylong event organized by the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council that introduces hundreds of middle- and high-school students to technology companies and related organizations in the area. Seventy-two companies participated in the 2016 Tech Tour.

Thirty-two groups of 10 to 15 students, representing 22 schools, each visited two or three technology companies. They were joined by teachers and volunteer tour guides from the business community.

“We feel like it’s important to give back to the community in a way that nurtures the next generation of entrepreneurs and technologists,” said Tracey Greene, executive director of CBIC.

Twelve juniors and seniors from Fluvanna County High School learned about the “internet of things” at PsiKick and used high-end recording technology at the Music Resource Center.

PsiKick designs battery-free sensors that measure weight, temperature and other simple data. With these inventions, PsiKick aims to eliminate barriers to building a global network of a trillion wirelessly connected objects, including phones, cars and human beings themselves.

While the scientists at PsiKick’s Charlottesville office Tuesday were laser-focused on their projects, business manager Erik Breuhaus led a discussion of their work with Fluvanna students.

Breuhaus asked the students to brainstorm ways in which they could use sensors in their homes, schools and hometowns. One student said she’d like to have sensors in her fridge and pantry to make sure her home was stocked with the right amounts of milk and cereal.

Jasmine Hankins joked that she’d like to install sensors that tracked the eighth-graders taking classes at her high school “so we can avoid them.”

Maddie Carem, an aspiring pediatrician, asked Breuhaus if PsiKick’s sensors could detect an irregular heartbeat. Breuhaus answered that PsiKick was working on this and had published an academic paper on the topic.

Newlin Humphrey was intrigued by the idea of placing sensors in soil to prevent the over-fertilization of crops. Humphrey said she wants to help feed the world’s population through biosystems engineering.

After a quick lunch in the Ix Art Park, the Fluvanna group drove to the Music Resource Center on Ridge Street.

Mike Moxham, a professional mix engineer who mentors MRC members, demonstrated the sound-blocking capability of a recording booth’s 800-pound door. Later, he showed students how to manipulate microphone channels to avoid interference from a nearby FM radio transmitter.

Moxham teaches a course on music industry technology at Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center. He said many of his students are shocked to learn that science and technical skills are central to music production.

The MRC visit made a big impression on Fluvanna student Kylie Haseltine — she said it inspired her to make music production the focus of her senior-year internship for the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor’s School program.

Jacob Taylor said that, before the Tech Tour, he didn’t realize how many technology companies were based in Charlottesville.

Taylor said he hopes to be a mechanical engineer. “I like how you can use math to solve problems in the world,” he said.

Before their bus tour, the students began the day at the V. Earl Dickinson Building at Piedmont Virginia Community College. They participated in a five-minute engineering challenge that had them construct free-standing towers out of two pieces of printer paper without glue or tape. Then they progressed to an auditorium for a “virtual tour” of WillowTree Apps.

Emily Seibert, a software engineer at WillowTree, said the company offers many perks to make employees love their jobs.

“We get free food, and we get to work in clothes like these,” Seibert said, pointing to her WillowTree T-shirt. “I work on a couch.”

Seibert said Merriam-Webster’s definition of software engineering — “a branch of computer science that deals with the design, implementation and maintenance of complex computer programs” — doesn’t capture what she loves about the field.

“What it really means is, you get to learn how to build really cool stuff,” she said.

All students that participated in the tech tour are eligible to apply for two $2,500 college scholarships from the CBIC.

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