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«The Computer Clubhouse: Technological Fluency in the Inner City Mitchel Resnick, MIT Media Laboratory Natalie Rusk, Science Museum of Minnesota Stina ...»

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Published in:

High Technology and Low-Income Communities

edited by D. Schon, B. Sanyal, and W. Mitchell

MIT Press, 1998


The Computer Clubhouse:

Technological Fluency in the Inner City

Mitchel Resnick, MIT Media Laboratory

Natalie Rusk, Science Museum of Minnesota

Stina Cooke, The Computer Museum


Mike Lee never cared much for school. His true passion was drawing. He filled up notebook after notebook with sketches of cartoon characters. At age 17, Mike dropped out of high school. But he continued to draw on his own and to help kids at a local elementary school learn how to draw.

A year or so later, Mike’s mother was participating in a teachers’ workshop at The Computer Museum in downtown Boston. She mentioned to the staff that her son was artistically talented, but she was worried because he was unemployed and not using his talents. They told her about the Computer Clubhouse, a new afterschool center where inner-city youth could work on computer projects. They said the Clubhouse needed volunteers and suggested that she encourage Mike to apply. Mike was skeptical. “I had never touched a computer before,” he remembers now. “I didn’t think of them at all.” Mike's mother argued that volunteering at the Computer Clubhouse—and learning to use computers—might lead to a good job. Mike shrugged: “Whatever.” On Mike’s first visit to the Clubhouse, staff member Noah Southall showed him how to use a digital camera to capture one of his comic-book drawings on the computer. Then, he learned how to use PhotoShop to color in the drawing. Noah asked Mike to become the first official Clubhouse “mentor.” For the next two years, Mike came to the Clubhouse regularly. “At least four days a week,” he says.

Access is Not Enough Ever since the personal computer was invented in the late 1970s, there have been concerns about inequities in access to this new technology (e.g., Piller, 1992). In an effort to address these inequities, some groups have worked to acquire computers for inner-city schools. Other groups have opened community-access centers, recognizing that schools are not the only (or necessarily the best) place for learning to occur. Atthese community-access centers, members of inner-city communities (youth and adults alike) can use computers at little or no charge.

The Computer Clubhouse (organized by The Computer Museum in collaboration with the MIT Media Laboratory) grows out of this tradition, but with important differences. At many other centers, the main goal is to teach youth basic computer techniques (such as keyboard and mouse skills) and basic computer applications (such as word processing). The Clubhouse views the computer with a different mindset. The point is not to provide a few classes to teach a few skills; the goal is for participants to learn to express themselves fluently with new technology.

Technological fluency means much more than the ability to use technological tools; that would be equivalent to understanding a few common phrases in a language. To become truly fluent in a language (like English or French), you must be able to articulate a complex idea or tell an engaging story—that is, you must be able to “make things” with language. Analogously, our concept of technological fluency involves not only knowing how to use technological tools, but also knowing how to construct things of significance with those tools. A technologically fluent person should be able to go from the germ of an intuitive idea to the implementation of a technological project (Papert & Resnick, 1995). Increasingly, technological fluency is becoming a prerequisite for getting jobs and participating meaningfully in our society.

The Computer Clubhouse aims to help inner-city youth gain that type of technological fluency. The Computer Clubhouse is designed to provide inner-city youth with access to new technologies. But access alone is not enough. The Clubhouse is based not only on new technology, but on new ideas about learning and community. It represents a new type of learning community—where young people and adult mentors work together on projects, using new technologies to explore and experiment in new ways.

During its first two years of operation, the Clubhouse attracted more than 1000 young people ages 10-16, with 98% coming from underserved communities. Participants were from diverse cultural backgrounds, including African American (61%), Asian (13%), and Latino (11%). To attract participants, the Clubhouse initially established connections with community centers and housing projects in target communities; since then, it has relied primarily on word of mouth.

Youth do not have to sign up for time at the Clubhouse; they can “drop in” whenever the Clubhouse is open.

At the Clubhouse, young people become designers and creators—not just consumers—of computer-based products. Participants use leading-edge software to create their own artwork, animations, simulations, multimedia presentations, virtual worlds, musical creations, Web sites, and robotic constructions.

–  –  –

At the Clubhouse, Mike Lee developed a new method for his artwork. First, he would draw black-and-white sketches by hand. Then, he would scan the sketches into the computer and use the computer to color them in. His work often involved comic-book images of himself and his friends (Figure 1).

Over time, Mike learned to use more advanced computer techniques in his artwork (Figure 2). Everyone in the Clubhouse was impressed with Mike’s creations, and other youth began to come to him for advice; many mimicked his approach. Before long, a collection of “Mike Lee style” artwork filled the bulletin boards of the Clubhouse (Figure 3). “It’s kind of flattering,” says Mike.

Mike took his responsibility as a mentor seriously. For example, he decided to stop using guns in his artwork, feeling that it was a bad influence on the younger Clubhouse members. “My own personal artwork is more hard core, about street violence. I had a close friend who was shot and died,” Mike explains. “But I don’t want to bring that here. I have an extra responsibility. Kids don’t understand about guns; they think it’s cool. They see a fight, it’s natural they want to go see it. They don't understand. They’re just kids.”

–  –  –

Clubhouse Principles Computers, software, and networking do not, by themselves, lead to the development of technological fluency. In creating the Clubhouse, we needed to consider not only new technologies, but also new forms of social interaction, new types of activities, new areas of knowledge, and new attitudes towards learning. In the following sections, we discuss four core principles that guided the development of the Clubhouse. These principles span multiple dimensions: social, pedagogical, technological, epistemological, and emotional. In creating new learning environments, all of these dimensions are important.

Principle 1: Support Learning through Design Experiences Activities at the Clubhouse vary widely, from constructing and controlling LEGO robots to

orchestrating virtual dancers. But these varied activities are based on a common framework:

engaging youth in learning through design.

In recent years, a growing number of researchers and educators have argued that design projects provide rich opportunities for learning (e.g., Harel, 1991; Papert, 1993; Lehrer, 1993;

Soloway, Guzdial, & Hay, 1994). There are many reasons for this interest in design-based


• Design activities engage youth as active participants, giving them a greater sense of control (and responsibility) over the learning process, in contrast to traditional school activities in which teachers aim to “transmit” new information to the students.

• Design activities encourage creative problem-solving, avoiding the right/wrong dichotomy prevalent in most school math and science activities, suggesting instead that multiple strategies and solutions are possible.

• Design activities can facilitate personal connections to knowledge, since designers often develop a special sense of ownership (and caring) for the products (and ideas) that they design.

• Design activities are often interdisciplinary, bringing together concepts from the arts, math, and sciences.

• Design activities promote a sense of audience, encouraging youth to consider how other people will use and react to the products they create.

• Design activities provide a context for reflection and discussion, enabling youth to gain a deeper understanding of the ideas underlying hands-on activities.

This emphasis on design activities is part of a broader educational philosophy known as constructionism (Papert, 1993). Constructionism is based on two types of “construction.” First, it asserts that learning is an active process, in which people actively construct knowledge from their experiences in the world. People don’t get ideas; they make them. (This idea is based on the constructivist theories of Jean Piaget.) To this, constructionism adds the idea that people construct new knowledge with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in constructing personally-meaningful products. They might be constructing sand castles, LEGO machines, or computer programs. What’s important is that they are actively engaged in creating something that is meaningful to themselves or to others around them.

At the Clubhouse, construction takes many forms. Rather than playing computer games, Clubhouse participants create their own computer games. And rather than just “surfing” on the Internet’s World Wide Web, participants make waves: they create their own multimedia Web pages, such as the Clubhouse’s Online Art Gallery.

To support these activities, the Clubhouse provides a variety of design tools, from introductory paint programs (such as KidPix) to high-end animation tools (such as Macromedia Director). Other software tools include: digital music recording, editing, and mixing tools;

desktop publishing tools; programming tools (such as Microworlds Logo); virtual-reality design tools for developing three-dimensional models on the computer screen; and construction kits for creating and controlling robotic machines (such as LEGO Control Lab). The Clubhouse also serves as a testbed for new technologies under development at research universities and companies. For example, the Clubhouse was the initial test site for the Programmable Brick, a portable computer built into a LEGO brick, developed at the MIT Media Lab (Sargent, Resnick, Martin, & Silverman, 1996).

At the Clubhouse, youth learn how to use these tools. But even more, they learn how to express themselves through these tools. They learn not only the technical details, but the heuristics of being a good designer: how to conceptualize a project, how to make use of the materials available, how to persist and find alternatives when things go wrong, and how to view a project through the eyes of others. In short, they learn how to manage a complex project from start to finish.

In creating the Clubhouse, we decided to focus not just on any design activities, but primarily on computer-based design activities. Why? For one thing, computers are now an important part of children’s culture. As a result, computer-based activities are likely to connect with children’s passions, imaginations, and interests.

Just as importantly, computers have the potential to engage youth in new types of mathematical and scientific thinking. It is not our approach to use computers to “teach” mathematical and scientific ideas explicitly. Rather, we have shown that certain computer-based activities engage youth in mathematical or scientific thinking as a natural, integral part of the activity itself. For example, as Clubhouse youth use Programmable Bricks to build and program “robotic creatures,” they begin to think about the similarities and differences between animals and machines. Are their LEGO creatures like animals? Or like machines? They compare the robots’ sensors to animal senses, and they discuss whether real animals have “programs” like their robots. In the process, they develop intuitions about feedback—a scientific concept traditionally taught at the university level. Programmable Bricks make the concept accessible to a much broader (and younger) audience.

–  –  –

Figure 4 Figure 5 Principle 2: Help Youth Build on their Own Interests In schools of education, the focus is usually on methods of teaching, not motivations for learning. Many courses emphasize how and what teachers should teach, but seldom examine why their students might want to learn. When the issue of motivation is addressed, the emphasis is often on extrinsic motivators and incentives, such as grades and prizes based on performance.

Yet if you look outside of school, you can find many examples of people learning—in fact, learning exceptionally well—without explicit “rewards.” Youth who seem to have short attention spans in school often display great concentration on projects that they are truly interested in.

They might spend hours learning to play the guitar or play basketball. Clearly, youth interests are a great untapped resource. As Roger Schank has written: “An interest is a terrible thing to waste” (Schank, 1994).

When youth care about what they are working on, the dynamic of teaching changes. Rather than being “pushed” to learn, youth work on their own, and seek out ideas and advice. Youth are not only more motivated but they also develop deeper understandings and richer connections to knowledge. At first, some youth interests might seem to be trivial or shallow, but youth can build up large networks of knowledge related to their interests. Pursuing any topic in depth can lead to connections to other subjects and disciplines. The educational challenge is to find ways to help youth make those connections and develop them more fully. For example, an interest in riding a bicycle can lead to investigations of gearing, the physics of balancing, the evolution of vehicles over time, or the environmental effects of different transportation modes.

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