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Learning Center in Southeast San Diego Housing Project Joins the Information Age under New Partnership with UCSD/SDSC

Published 08/21/2007

Elsa Urquilla, a 4th-year UCSD student, is mentoring Jahne Webster as part of a program to help narrow the
Elsa Urquilla, a 4th-year UCSD student, is mentoring Jahne Webster as part of a program to help narrow the "digital divide" in a Southeast San Diego housing project.

Media Contacts:
Warren R. Froelich, SDSC

Christine Clark, UCSD

In Southeast San Diego, the "digital divide" separating the haves and the have-nots in computer literacy just narrowed a bit. Thanks to a new partnership with UC San Diego and the San Diego Supercomputer Center, kids and young adults in a federally subsidized housing project here are now learning the basics of video production and editing, animation, programming, and how to create multimedia video games with the latest software.

After-school activities, once dominated by physical play and games, now see teens and pre-teens working a digital video camera, constructing a multimedia website, and talking about the "next step" -- building "a virtual world" for a group learning environment built around a computer game.

"It's opened up a whole new vision for these kids," said Veverly Anderson, youth program coordinator at the Town and Country Village learning center, who's been managing the center for the last four years. "They're learning the tools of the Information Age - visualizations, games, scripting - so now they can see they have the potential to do technical things. And they're soaking this all up like a sponge."

The project's inspiration comes from Michael Cole, a professor of communication, psychology and human development at UCSD, who has pioneered innovative after-school programs that bring computers and computer networks to children in community settings. This summer, some 10 UCSD students from the Sixth College - which focuses on computer arts and technology -- are working with the Learning Center three days per week as part of that school's research requirement.

Cole also has enlisted support from SDSC to help identify and implement "kid-friendly" software and programming tools to develop, among other things, interactive computer games that can be played at a distance across a network.

"We're providing a basket of activities - tools - that give the kids ways to create, explore and learn about things that interest them. It's fundamentally the same type of service that SDSC provides for scientists," said Diane Baxter, SDSC's education director. "It's just amazing how quickly they adopt the technology skills and start creating their own knowledge with them."

Added Cole: "I think it's really useful to get these kids in the housing project connected to American society and the world, because it's all part of their future and they can't afford to be unconnected."

Located in what's known as the Diamond District of Southeast San Diego, the facility opened about a half-dozen years ago as part of the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Neighborhood Networks Initiative, established in 1994, which encouraged developer and owners to provide multiple support service resources to the residents living in their affordable housing communities.

The center, managed by developer/owners of San Diego Community Housing Corporation, combines the square-footage of two apartments in the 145-unit development. Once attracting just about 15-20 kids per month, the learning center now draws about 30-40 youngsters each day, ranging in age from 6 to early 20s. Till the UCSD partnership, the workload on Anderson, otherwise known respectfully as "Miss Veverly," was enormous.

"Having the students here, the undergrads and grads and professors here, help give the kids the one-on-one attention they need," said Anderson. "Also, it's inspirational to the kids because they're now talking to someone who's actually in college other than me. And they're younger in college, and they're happy in college.

"It's helping the kids who really don't have examples. Some of the parents here went to college, but more didn't. It's not the norm."

It was late afternoon at the learning center, and the kids in attendance were engaged in a variety of activities, including a fast game of two-square in the adjoining parking lot, tending to a new garden in front of the unit, along with some tutoring in the computer room.

On the front porch, a group of about half-dozen or so gathered around Ali Ozkan, a visual arts major at UCSD, to work on a rap video using a digital video camera and audio equipment. From here, the kids will be learning to incorporate animation, stills and music into the video, for a complete multimedia experience.

"They expressed interest in doing a rap video and I go with their interests," said Ozkan, a fourth-year student. "It's amazing how quickly they pick this up. We only have one laptop for editing and I was showing one of the kids how it's done, while another two were just watching and I wasn't sure if they were getting it. The second time around, the other two had a chance to interact with the computer, and they remembered everything. I didn't have to tell them a thing."

Tommy Ray Douglas, 17, offered a tour of the Center to a visitor. Douglas, entering his senior year at Kearny High, easily talks about his football team, where he plays defensive end and wide receiver. Outgoing with a ready smile, Douglas needed some geometry tutoring, so about three months ago Ivan Rosero, a UCSD communication grad student, took him under his wing.

"The use of technology is only a platform for learning," said Rosero, who grew up in similar surroundings during his youth in Miami, Fla. "If you don't connect it to people, it doesn't matter. You need to build relationships and technology helps with that."

Under Rosero's tutelage, Douglas' geometry test scores began to rise perceptively and his conversation soon became sprinkled with concepts and terms from the Information Age, such as "Dreamweaver," a programming language for web design, and his vision for a "virtual world" computer game. He's learning some of the software needed to make that happen, such as Scratch -- developed at MIT; and SciCentr, a game world based on Active Worlds, where students design their own galleries within a virtual museum -- created at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY.

Recently, Douglas and Rosero flew to Cornell for a few days to learn to build their own galleries within the SciCentr space - galleries that the learning center kids will build under the guidance of Tommy, Ivan, and Camille, another UCSD graduate student. "That was the first time I flew anywhere and my experience there was fun," said Douglas.

As for the learning center, Douglas tries to attend every day.

"Right now, I'm learning web design and I'll be getting into doing mini-movies and building video games," he said. "It's all been great."

Cole said he'll follow the progress of the learning center youngsters through student portfolios that are created from the kids' own projects. At the same time their academic progress will be monitored through their report cards, which "Miss Veverly" collects. To provide a complete record of the project and the process of infusing technology into the learning center's activities, each of the UCSD students prepares field reports with their observations, in addition to their personal reflections on their experiences. Cole said he hopes to expand the program, now funded on a "nickel and dime basis," if he can find additional resources to pay for computers, software, and graduate student support to provide the ongoing on-site coordination for the undergraduate students' activities.

"This is our way to get our students out of the multiple choice mode and dealing with real phenomenon that they read about in their textbooks," said Cole. "Our social sciences students deserve this type of practical education to connect the theories with reality."

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