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'This is the future' | Hundreds of middle schoolers experience cutting edge technology as West Michigan looks to become a tech leader

Middle school students from across the Grand Rapids area got the chance to experience VR, and learn about careers in West Michigan's tech industry.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Grand Rapids has been known as Furniture City, Beer City as well as a home for innovating healthcare technology on the Medical Mile. And according to the city's industry leaders, it is on its way to becoming a tech city, and they say it all starts with the kids.

"Middle schoolers are just beginning their exploration [into] what they want to do when they grow up, and so for them to see a robot going by or to get their hands on some software development, or wear a VR headset, it's going to spark some interest and maybe someday help them find their career paths," said Randy Thelen, President and CEO of The Right Place, a regional economic development organization serving the Greater Grand Rapids region.

With this week marking Tech Week in Grand Rapids, middle school students from across the Grand Rapids area Tuesday visited the Grand Rapids Art Museum throughout the day to learn about dozens of careers and get hands-on with the latest technology.

"Kids are curious, and they want to learn more about what's out there," said Thelen as he watched the excitement and curiosity demonstrated by the students.

With their virtual reality (VR) headsets on, they were able to play VR basketball, relax on a beach, fly a plane, and talk to Bank of America employees from across the country, as Bank of America presented their VR platform used in their workplace.

"Our intent is to really encourage intellectual curiosity. We want that for our own teammates at the bank, and we certainly want to do that for the children, to get them inspired, to want to do more," said Senior Vice President Teresa DeBastiani. 

Brian Stanton, the Consumer Regional Executive for Chicago and Michigan, says that exposing students to this kind of technology enables them to see potential futures for themselves. 

"This is the future. So if we can expose them to this technology now, incorporate into their day to day lives, what they might see as opportunities for them to get into the business of VR and technology."

After riding on a virtual spaceship, students then were then able to get up close and personal to the tech created and used by those right in their backyard.

Thelen says that building up Grand Rapids as a tech city is a continuation of legacies left by the city's history of manufacturing, engineering, and the city currently also being a leader in the health sciences with Medical Mile.

"Throughout the region, we've got a long history of manufacturing and the engineering prowess that goes with that, and now we're looking to build a tech economy to complement all of that, continuing to build the region and it starts with young people," said Thelen who looks to build a pipeline of young talent into the city's tech industry. 

The Right Place has also made public their plan to create 20,000 new tech jobs in West Michigan over the next 10 years in order for the region to become a tech leader. Thelen says that the region is on track, as 3,000 tech jobs have already been created over the past two years. 

"The kids that are here at this program today are gonna be part of that future going forward," added Thelen.

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