Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
Two 10-year-old girls put together a computer animation of blue and red human figures, dancing to upbeat music. A high school junior creates artwork grieving for the victims of street violence, and it's displayed on the P.O.V. Interactive Web site sponsored by PBS. Two other youths create a 40-foot-square, computer-controlled LEGO city that has the lights and sounds of a real city - including a train depot and a power plant.
Quite a few children today are computer-savvy, but what makes these projects even more remarkable is that these young artists and builders don't have much access to computers at home or in school. What they do have, though, is a clubhouse.
The Computer Clubhouse was established in 1993 by The Computer Museum and Professor Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media Laboratory. It's an environment where kids have the support they need to become confident learners who direct their own projects on computers.
The Clubhouse was first envisioned as a place for inner-city youth to get their hands on powerful computing tools, and as a model learning environment for how technology can support learning and community development. The museum lined up sponsors to get the project started, with Intel providing the largest donation of seed money. Initially, groups of children from underserved communities were brought to the Clubhouse in vans. Now boys and girls in target communities learn about it mostly from their friends.
Several satellite clubhouses - each tailored to its community and host organization - have been established. There are Computer Clubhouses at the Harriet Tubman House, the Roxbury Boys & Girls Club, the Patriots' Trail Girl Scout Council, and the Brooklyn (NY) Children's Museum. There's even a Clubhouse in Esslingen, Germany, outside Stuttgart.
Clubhouse members range in age from eight to 18. They drop by after school and on Saturdays to design and create with up-to-date computer technology in a casual but high-energy atmosphere. Mentors give feedback and encourage the kids to search their imaginations for follow-on ideas and new possibilities.
Members work singly and in groups for days, weeks or months to implement their ideas on the computer - creating art and animation, game designs, simulations, video clips, musical creations, newsletters and robotic constructions. There's a high priority on developing a culture of respect and trust. In the often crowded Clubhouse, members also learn how to share - not just equipment but skills.
Instead of educational software, the Clubhouse provides hardware and software for the professional designer - color scanners and software for image processing, animation, multimedia and 3-D rendering. It also has a music and sound editing studio, and a video studio now being renovated.
"I'm getting experience with all kinds of software and computers that I can't get my hands on yet at school," said member Katie Acosta. She wrote an article about her experience at the Clubhouse for New Moon, a national magazine for girls.
Mike Lee, a member with comic book design skills who had lost interest in school, quickly became a mentor for other members. A talented artist who had never used computers before coming to the Clubhouse, Mike developed such expertise that he landed a job creating graphics for a prominent consulting firm. His Clubhouse experience made him "more aware of my world."
To see some of the collages, self-portraits and scenes created by Clubhouse members, go to <http://www.computerclubhouse.org/members-galleries.htm>.
TIES WITH MIT
The Clubhouse continues to collaborate with the Media Lab, serving as a test bed for new ideas about learning. The Beyond Black Boxes project at the Patriots' Trail Girl Scouts satellite clubhouse introduces inner-city girls to scientific inquiry and experimentation.
This summer, a group of the girls developed instruments using Cricket robots to measure, transmit and graph temperature changes on weather balloons at varying altitudes. The Crickets, developed at the Media Lab through an NSF grant, are LEGO bricks with tiny computers embedded inside.
For more information about Crickets and the Beyond Black Boxes project, go to the MIT Epistemology and Learning Group's Projects page.
Gail Breslow, director of the Computer Clubhouse, has even more initiatives in the works. With Computer Museum and sponsor support, the Clubhouse plans to go global, using the practices that have worked best in the Clubhouse and its satellites. Closer to home, it recently launched the Clubhouse-to-College/Clubhouse-to-Career project, which supports members in planning for the future and realizing their potential.
The Clubhouse also intends to expand its online presence. Right now, the Web site explains the Clubhouse philosophy, showcases members' artwork and Web pages, and provides links to satellite clubhouses. In the future, organizers hope to provide an online setting where members around the world can collaborate, participate in online simulations and work in virtual animation labs. A newsletter and member chat room are also planned.
Mentors are key to the Clubhouse, and the goal is a ratio of one mentor for every four members. Mentors can be professionals, college students, retirees, or anyone interested in young people and art, animation, music, robotics or the Web. Anyone willing to share their experiences, serve as a role model and support member explorations may contact Marlon Orozco at 426-2800 x347 or <email@example.com>.
(This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of i/s.)
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 17, 1997.