August 23, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 2
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Teens tackle community issues through technology

Liz Hoffman

For the last 12 weeks, four groups of area high school students have been busy working on projects as part of their final event at the South End Technology Center’s (SETC) Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn program.

They were asked to design creative solutions to problems they saw in their community.

Presented last Friday at SETC’ Columbus Avenue site, their solutions were as different as the issues they attempted to tackle.

One was an empty chair that symbolized the tragedies of gun violence.

Another was a thugged-out teddy bear, complete with a heavy gold chain and oversized T-shirt, telling kids to stay in school.

The third was an anti-drug cartoon that featured a talking, animated marijuana cigarette.

And the final one was an alarm clock that crowed like a rooster to keep drivers awake and alert on the road.

Amon Millner, a doctoral candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-coordinator of the Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn Program, said the projects were part of a larger lesson.

“Everyone is going to be a consumer of technology at some point.” Millner said. “Even working at McDonald’s, you use a touch-screen that is hooked up to a computer. But we want these kids to go a step further. We want them to do more than consume. We want them to be producers of technology.”

The summer-long program employed 28 teens as students, teachers and innovators. Beginning in late May, the students attended courses at the technology center and at MIT, one of the center’s community partners. They learned several “core modules,” which covered physical engineering, energy production and consumption, and graphic and Web design.

They were exposed to several emerging technologies, from a bio-diesel truck that runs on vegetable oil to the “FabLab,” which is run in conjunction with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms.

In late July, the teens went to 12 community organizations, where they taught area youth what they had learned.

Tracey Lewis, director of the Madison Park Community Center, had five SETC teen teachers at her center.

“The kids loved them. They kept asking me, ‘Ms. Tracey, when are they coming back?’” said Lewis, who is working on getting funding to continue the program year-round at the community center. “This was something different for the kids.”

And for the participants. Each of the final projects involved a physical construction, an electrical wiring or computer-programming element, and a combination of sounds or graphics — all imagined, blueprinted, created and compiled in the technology center’s basement.

The FabLab, short for “fabrication laboratory,” is a technological workbench. The teens used the machine to create the physical objects, like acrylic casing for the “Sonic Boom” driver alarm or the message engraved on the gun violence “Truth Chair.”

“It’s all about being creative; not just creative in an imaginative sense, but creative in the truly constructive sense,” said Ed Baffi, director of the FabLab and co-coordinator of the program. “Everybody buys physical objects. With FabLab, now you can think about building one.”

The center also contains a recording studio that was the site for much of the sound for the projects, as well as new computer animation software called Scratch.

“Everything about the center is designed to make these kids active producers of technology,” Baffi said. “They mix their own music, tell their own stories, and create their own products.”

Having fun is only part of the program.

“There are three elements — a learning element, a teaching element and a project element,” Millner said. “We want to broaden their horizons. We want to show them that technology is not only the Internet or cell phones, but it can be real, tangible things and it can be a career and it can be fun.”

Vanessa Gomez-Brown of Dorchester is one of the program’s teen teachers and enjoys sharing what she has learned with younger students.

“We’re telling them that they don’t have to be the next teenage statistic,” Gomez-Brown, a junior at Melrose High School. “There are things they can do with their lives, and technology can be part of that if they want it to. They can change the pattern. Knowing that I have the opportunity to make a positive influence on these kids is something that I take very seriously.”

That impact, as well as the anti-drug, anti-gun violence messages promoted in their projects, comes full circle and back to the teen teachers.

“It helps us to recognize that we can’t be hypocritical,” Gomez-Brown said. “We can’t tell them to stay in school and not do drugs and then turn around and do all those things ourselves. As we’re teaching them, we’re learning at the same time.”

And according to Baffi, that’s all part of the design.

“They learn, they produce, and then they teach,” he said. “They go out in the community and create more students.”

Vanessa Gomez-Brown, Angel Fernandez (back row) and Joseph Jaquez teach a computer animation program to students at the El Batey Computer Learning Center in Villa Victoria during the teaching phase of the Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn Program of the South End Technology Center. (Photo courtesy of South End Technology Center)

Teen teachers of the South End Technology Center’s Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn program present the “Truth Chair.” Designed and built by the program’s teens, the chair symbolizes the tragedies of gun violence. (Photo courtesy of South End Technology Center)

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