686 lunchboxes feed kids’ appetite for technology

Tronix Team will convert the lunchboxes into MP3 players

Steve Birth pulled a trailer packed with 686 lunchboxes all the way from Delaware to the Park Avenue Foundation's parking lot at 3400 Park Ave., where about 40 kids helped unload them.

The kids were part of the Tronix Team, a youth program Birth founded nine years ago, and the boxes are destined to become MP3 player/boomboxes. With a lunchbox, a speaker and a circuit board, the kids will be able to download their favorite songs.

So far, the lunchbox project has attracted 60 kids to Tronix. Birth hopes to reach 100 kids by year's end.

Birth bought the diverse assortment of lunchboxes on e-Bay for $499 from an 86-year-old hobby collector. Even factoring in a 2,400-mile road trip, the per unit cost was less than $1, considerably less than the $6 you might pay at Wal-Mart.

Birth, who's retired, was the first programmer for Macromedia, Inc., which develops software, and worked with an educational program called Authorware in 1985. The techie later started Tronix as a way to give middle-school kids real-world engineering experience, he said. &#8220We've kept a low profile through the years and focused on helping kids,” said Birth.

Tronix Team members have constructed lasers, sirens and &#8220Mars Rovers.” Students play with gadgets in classes at the Park Avenue United Methodist Church (where the Park Avenue Foundation is located). Birth also volunteers with the Foundation, which houses numerous other community programs including a legal advice center, medical clinic and food shelf.

The program draws teaching assistants from the University of Minnesota's electrical engineering program and Park Avenue Church, and also brings Tronix alumni back to teach younger kids.

Tronix is similar to Leonardo's Basement, which also offers creative technology projects for kids in Southwest, but in a less-structured environment. Steve Jevning, Leonardo's founder, is Birth's neighbor in Kingfield, and both programs began about the same time and are funded through a Medtronic representative.

Tronix also reaches out to kids across the city through various initiatives. For example, the Tronix Team has built gizmos with youth from Urban Ventures Learning Lab, 3024 4th Ave. S.; the Banyan Foundation, 2528 16th Ave. S.; Leonardo's Basement, 4301 Nicollet Ave.; and Park Avenue Foundation. Next, it will work with the YMCA's Dynamite Hockey Project.

One of Tronix's goals is to inspire a sense of belonging, &#8220Kids are looking for groups to belong to. Plus, there's teamwork here,” said Birth.

For more information, check out www.tronixteam.org.