UIX: Bryant Zimmerman pairs global expertise with community education

For Bryant Zimmerman, part of running a global communications company means being passionate about local education.
Bryant Zimmerman runs a global communications company, but there's no disputing his passion for local education.
Zimmerman's expertise in technology and telecommunications run deep. Just this year, as an administrator, he rolled out a curriculum focusing on the world of microcomputing and working with the Raspberry Pi, a low-cost, DIY computer the size of a credit card. As a trainer, he's been involved in the robotics teams at local school districts. And as CEO of Grand Dial Communications, he even had time to run a few political social media campaigns.
"The reason I come to work every day is to make a difference with communication and technology," Zimmerman says. "I'm looking for ways to apply technology to make a difference for our business customers, for our community, and for the kids that we're able to reach in Grand Rapids Public Schools. It's a neat place to be. It's exciting."
Zimmerman has spent much of his professional life training others on new technologies. Working as a video production expert, he led large corporations through the creation of training videos, which in turn helped them train their own peers. And when Grand Dial rebranded itself from a telecommunications and IT company to a communications firm about three years ago, Zimmerman found the reach and application of his own talents expanding.
Grand Dial's current focus is on educational programs at a community level. The Raspberry Pi Playground curriculum, one of the company's first public offerings, is aimed at getting adults and teens interested in DIY computing. Raspberry Pi and other devices like it--Arduino, Beagle Bone and Intel's new Edison model--offer endless potential as a computing system at an affordable entry level. The boards themselves cost under $50 but that does not include the LCD screen, keyboard or other items needed to control and customize the device. Admission to the Grand Dial program is $225 and includes the latest Pi model 3 and everything needed to operate it and build a retro video game emulator, a home media center, a scaled-down desktop computer, or digital signage; altogether about a $175 value, not including breakfast, lunch, and valuable advice from IT professionals.
The Grand Rapids Public Schools' robotics program owes a lot to Zimmerman, as he's helped their First Robotics team program some of its first steps. As coordinator for the local robotics team coaches, Zimmerman worked with people of many different skill levels and technical backgrounds. He says he noticed some coaches weren't letting the kids put the robot on the table because "they were afraid they were going to break it." Never one to get in the way of a lesson, Zimmerman seized the opportunity.
"I was going to practices and spending two and a half hours training the teachers on how to stand back and coach the students," he says. "I would show the kids something with the robot, stand back and talk them through the next process. After 20 minutes we would put the basic training robot on the table and discuss the steps it would take to make it do what they wanted it to do."
Zimmerman's teaching methods instilled his students with just one or two simple ideas in each session, but they came away feeling successful with those ideas. That success, coupled with curiosity and drive, grows fast in children. So fast, in fact, that Zimmerman has found himself partly responsible for a boom in learning that some educators didn't expect.
"They hang their hat on that success, and two or three weeks later I get a call from the teachers saying, 'We can't hold these kids back,'" he says. "Why would you want to hold them back? Change that mindset. It's not about holding the kids back, it's about launching them to success. It's about directing the focus so these kids can explore things that make a difference for them."
This summer, Grand Dial has plans for its first robotics camp, concentrating on the fundamentals of programming through the LEGO Education program.
"I'm very big on LEGO education; their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning programs are very well done," Zimmerman says. "There are tons of different STEM based programs out there but LEGO has spent a lot of time putting these programs together and they're made in a way that allows anybody to just open up and experience."
It's a hands-on approach to STEM learning that Zimmerman and Grand Dial are pushing, and judging from the trend in education toward those careers, the community is responding positively to their efforts. In 2015, we covered several STEM education-based organizations that have each grown in capacity and offering since then: Liz Bartlett has combined knitting with precise engineering at KNITit, Aaron Brown is offering 3D printing lessons at Axis Lab, and Keli Christopher's Mind Boggle program is gaining momentum in schools, while Lis Bokt and the Geek Group have an entire National Science Center at their disposal.
Given the reach of Grand Dial Communications, possibly its most impressive trait is its size. the company operates with only six employees, and that's after a new staff member was added this year.
"We run a nationwide telecommunications company and an IT management company—we do a lot with the resources we have, and we’re growing," Zimmerman says.
For more information on Grand Dial Communications, visit http://www.granddial.com/
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
Photography by Steph Harding
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