Detroit Engineer Develops Coding Program to Teach Teens Tech Skills in a Gutted Out School Bus



In recent years, Detroit’s fledgling school system and constant infighting between teachers and governmental officials has dominated national headlines.

That infighting and bitterness came to a head in May when teachers staged a sickout.

The protest addressed the uninhabitable classroom conditions — mold, inoperable restrooms, and broken air conditioner/heating units — that contributed to health issues.

It also brought the school system’s inability to pay teachers’ salaries to the forefront of the news cycle.

Atlanta Black Star reported earlier this year that lawmakers passed a $715 million education reform plan in March to bail out Detroit Public Schools’ $515 million operating debt.

It appears that the city of Detroit is in constant instability.

However, one man sees the light before the dawn and has grown tired of the political circus.

Amazon engineer and Detroit native Thomas Phillips hopes to provide an alternative — a positive educational environment — with his Aspire Tech Bus project.

The 33-year-old wants to gut old buses and transform them into mobile tech labs where he will teach coding to Detroit’s youth.

Philips spoke to Atlanta Black Star about the inception of his dream project, funding and diversity in the tech industry.

From The Midway to The West Coast

After building a computer in high school, people realized Phillips had a knack for tech.

Subsequently, teachers and counselors persuaded him to pursue a career in technology.

“Computer engineering just happened to be something I like to do. The people that advised me didn’t know what a computer engineer did,” he said. “When I got to the University of Michigan, that’s where I started my degree. I struggled at it initially, but I always liked it. I wish I had exposure to that type of stuff [earlier].”

In 2014, Phillips moved to Seattle to take a job at Amazon as a quality assurance engineer.

While he enjoys his job at Amazon, he said he misses being around Black people.

Phillips has only been in tech for two years but he sees the glaring diversity issues people talk about. Currently, he is the only person of color on his team.

Phillips told ABS that his primary reason for taking the job was to pass along newly acquired skills to Detroit’s youth.

Meanwhile, his wife, who runs a non-profit dance school, is back in Detroit holding down the fort.

“She got a part-time job at Delta Airlines and we fly back and forth for free.”

Seattle is thousands of miles away but it has afforded him a chance to help his city.

What is the Tech Bus?

In June, Philips participated in the third annual Hack The C.D. (Central District) conference — in Seattle’s historic Black Africatown — announcing his tech bus project to the world.

The conference served as a mixer between community members, entrepreneurs and business investors.

Since then, he has developed a curriculum that would help teach high school students how to create a web page and run a server.

After he guts out a school bus, he will transform the insides to a mobile classroom with multiple workstations.

He hopes the interior will look similar to the model below:


Within two semesters, students will be able to host a website. They will have a portfolio of projects and their own website to show off their skills.

He plans to teach eight to 10 students with the help of a teaching assistant. Ultimately, he wants to have numerous buses capable of teaching a classroom of 10.

The Raspberry Pi, an affordable computer that you can use to learn programming through practical projects.

Students will also learn HTML, CSS and JavaScript for front-end, and NodeJS and ExpressJS for back-end development along with other coding fundamentals.

In addition, Phillips will equip the bus with Raspberry Pi workstations for his student learners to put the concepts they learned into practice.

Already, the tech bus has attracted Detroit Public Schools attention. They discussed a “possible partnership and dual enrollment program.”

Phillips is currently applying for grants and figuring out ways to fund his dream. He has applied for a grant through My Brothers’ Keeper of Detroit and hopes to collaborate with other applicants.

Lend a Helping Hand 

Philips wanted to create this project to help other students interested in tech avoid “similar pitfalls” that he experienced early on.

He told ABS that it took a decade to get his undergraduate degree as he floated around to various colleges for 10 years.

However, if he had the proper guidance, those missteps could have been avoided, he said.

In recent years, Phillips has come to understand that he has the power to influence youth.

He told ABS that he feels passionately about the students in DPS.

“I just want to help. I don’t want to wait on the city or state to get their stuff together. There’s an opportunity to act. And I feel that I have a certain skill set, certain passion that is going to help somebody. Why do I have to wait for red tape to clear?”

The success he garnered teaching and mentoring kids will continue with the Aspire Tech Bus.

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