At Charlotte’s Geek Fest, the emphasis is on ‘fest’

Imagine the wildest science fair you could possibly attend, a place where you can see everything from stop-motion clay animation to drones equipped with video cameras to cigar box guitars to the night vision systems on new BMWs. Now imagine that you can talk to the engineers, pilots, musicians, and artists who invent and work with these tools daily.

Now, imagine that you can do that all day long in a technology building filled with light, sharing the experience with people ranging from middle-school students to retirees. For free. In Charlotte.

You’ve just imagined The Geek Fest, a 13-year-old annual event celebrated at the Levine Campus of Central Piedmont Community College. Gary Ritter, executive director of learning technology services at CPCC, says the event focuses on innovation, technology, and creativity – and its key to success is an emphasis on fun.

“Geekfest is a way to bring students together in an informal, fun way, and we also saw this as a way to showcase things that were happening at the college, some of the different programs that involved technology or innovation or science,” Ritter says. “And it’s a way to bring in other schools. So Queens University is a partner, and UNCC has helped out at different events, as well as the community at large, different organizations and businesses.

“The Geek Fest is sponsored by a community college, and we see a big part of our mission as being a place where the community can get together and provide a place to go. For example, CPCC has been involved with digital inclusion efforts for the past two years, trying to increase digital literacy rates along with the broadband that is now coming to Charlotte.  We see this as being within the mission of Geek Fest. We’ve brought in people from the partners in the digital inclusion movement, to provide space for exhibitions and sessions to explain what’s happening, and it’s really paid off. We want to continue to build on that.”

This year the festival took place on Nov. 10, featuring more than 40 demonstrations and more than a dozen panels and discussions. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people visit the event annually, and this year Ritter says Geek Fest attracted more than 900 K-12 students who boarded buses and attended the event as a class or school – a new record.

Demonstrations and discussions included how to build and play cigar box guitars by luthier Fred Connell; BMW blind spot detection systems and night vision, explained by CPCC automotive technology students; and stop-motion animation by Charlotte animator John Lemmon.

The planning team for next year’s Geek Fest is already evaluating feedback and making preparations. Ritter imagines a richer and even more interactive environment, but he doesn’t expect major changes.

“It’s called a festival because we want it to be fun,” Ritter says. “It’s not a conference, it’s not a trade show, it’s not really a vendor display – although it contains elements of those. There’s an element of learning about the college, but it’s not really a recruiting event. There’s an element of learning about jobs, but it’s not an employment event. It’s a little bit of everything.  The central theme of Geek Fest is really the ‘fest.’”


Gary Ritter, one of The Geek Fest producers, gives this advice to organizations who want to create a terrific demonstration at the annual event:

“What people really respond to is interaction. That’s not to say that a talk is bad. What people really respond to is an opportunity to engage. If you have a space where you’re not only giving information about a technology or issue, but it’s hands-on, where people can play with things and really get involved and really move around, that’s the thing that people really respond to.”