Tech Warriors: Merging Computer Science and AV Fields at Two Rivers

Authored by Bill Larsen, District AV Technology Coordinator/Tech Warriors Advisor School District 197

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THE SUCCESS OF LIVE EVENTS is in large part dependent on the individuals working behind the scenes. But how do you teach the next generation of individuals how to properly wrap a cable, focus a light or a camera, connect with a wide range of personalities, and work with ever-changing and fast-paced technological advancements? A club at Two Rivers High School in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, has worked to overcome that gap.

Student groups for audiovisual production in high schools, also referred to as clubs, have been a part of extracurricular activities in high schools ever since the inception of the very first AV/ Photography Club. Although AV clubs have largely disappeared, other technical-oriented clubs like robotics or video production have taken their place. Tech Warriors is a student-run organization at Two Rivers High School. Although it is a far cry from rolling a cart with a TV on it, threading a 16mm projector, or even ensuring that the slides are oriented correctly for screening, one thing that has not changed is students’ ability to assist their fellow students, teachers, and staff in maintaining and running equipment for their events.

Tech Warriors is a club of students who are interested in computer science and audio-visual technologies. The merging of the fields of computer science and networking with the field of audiovisual technology is one of the motivations behind the formation of this organization. The term audiovisual (AV) is defined in this article to include computer software and hardware, audio concepts, video production, and projection, as well as lighting technologies that are utilized in theaters and other live events.

Tech Warriors students have the opportunity to learn about technical theatre, live event setups, video production, computer repair, and level 1 tech support. In addition to this, they are offered the chance to participate in a variety of certification exams for the industry, such as the USITT Backstage Exams or ETC online training courses. It is also designed to offer students the skills necessary for a number of roles in the entertainment industry, such as stage management, lighting and sound design, and set construction and design.

Early versions of this group focused solely on the IT help desk and were turned into a course for which students could obtain credit. It constrained what and who was available and interested in IT and general technology. In 2018, the club was discontinued; however, during COVID and as a result of increasing knowledge of the benefits that technology may give in a classroom setting (namely, online learning), the administration rethought the group. This time, instead of a course, a service group was formed. The group would meet after school and whenever the students had free time to work on technology.

This broader definition of technology included not only information technology, but also live entertainment, lighting, and audio engineering, as well as video production. Tech Warriors have access to a variety of industry training and certifications, including those offered by AVIXA, SRA (Student Repair Academy through Vivacity Tech), and USITT, in addition to vast practical training in production and help desk operations. While students are Tech Warriors, they work on a wide range of projects.

Beginning with the IT side of the group, students completed a training program to repair Chromebooks. During the 2022-2023 school year, the school district saved several thousand dollars in repair charges and was able to maintain around fifty fixed Chromebooks. The students learned how to disassemble and diagnose common and uncommon computer problems. Some Tech Warriors even built their own Linux servers. This group covers a wide range of topics, allowing our students to be proficient in many areas, with some specializing in one or two.

Focusing on the skills required to put on a show, we begin with the fundamentals. Training is provided on appropriate terminology, safety procedures, interpersonal skills, as well as software and hardware used in the industry. Lighting students, for example, learn how to hang, focus, and adjust a lamp, as well as what DMX is and how to program on the school’s ETC Ion board. It has been fantastic to watch the students troubleshoot how to fix a stage light that is on for no apparent reason, or a flickering lamp and see their approach to fixing the issue. Concepts related to troubleshooting are also taught to them. The AV part of Tech Warriors runs operations and deals directly with customers, such as the numerous dance companies that visit in the months of May and June. Several outside theatre companies use our space, and Tech Warriors will also manage and set up for them.

They are also interested in video sports production, so their involvement does not stop with theatre. The students receive training from our local community TV station, Town Square TV, on how to operate and set up a broadcast truck. Students use their skills to run their own productions, broadcast live, and stream on local networks. Our students ran an in-house production for our Daktronics video board and learned the Daktronics program, Show Control, throughout the 2023 football season. Show Control is utilized in many NFL, NBA, and MLB stadiums, and the software is the same. Tech Warriors study software and hardware currently used throughout the industry.

Many program graduates have pursued careers in theatre or information technology. The program’s high participation rate among women and BIPOC is one of its best features. By 2021, half of the group’s participants were women and BIPOC, and as a result, many more students expressed interest in becoming a part of the group. This group’s openness to all tech enthusiasts is encouraging, as there is no set type of person who works in AV or IT.

A basic production now involves pre-show lighting, music, movies, multiple PowerPoint presentations, and speakers. It is no longer a simple process. Having a group capable of meeting all of those demands—including the technical requirements of the presenter’s computer—is crucial in the current environment.

The range of possibilities that can emerge during a performance has increased as a result of technology’s integration into live entertainment. Having personnel who have received the necessary training will be very helpful in ensuring that production runs smoothly. 

Bill Larsen, CTS is the AV Technology Coordinator at School District 197 in Minnesota. He has been working in live entertainment for 30 years. He is a member of the AVIXA CTS test writing team and am currently writing a textbook on live event production techniques. 

Tech Warrior club members volunteer at the ninth-grade orientation as students pick up their devices.

Local partner Town Square Television delivers camera donations to Tech Club Members on Two Rivers Campus.

Tech Warrior member repairs a non-working laptop for future use.