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A Computer for Every Child

Alexander Science School kids, parents and teachers embark on a new adventure with Viterbi students to become computer savvy

November 21, 2006 — Inside a large, open-air foyer known to Alexander Jr. Science Center staff and students as the “big lab,” a pilot program made possible by Viterbi School undergraduates is under way. The goal is to give every student a computer, every parent of every student a chance to learn how to use one, and every teacher at Alexander Science Center a chance to become technologically savvy in the classroom.
Alexander School technology director Bill MacDonald, center, helps 5th graders navigate the Internet.

Sound easy?

Not really, but with the help of this talented group of future engineers, the educational experiment has begun.

This fall, Phase 1 of a three-phase Technology Advancement Program (TAP) program to upgrade the Alexander School computer lab was launched with funding from a USC Neighborhood Outreach (UNO) grant.  The program is designed to help the Alexander School realize its vision of becoming a national model elementary school specializing in math, sciences and technology by the year 2010.

The team of Viterbi School students is being led by Brian Wilke and David Greenbaum, and includes classmates Abhinav Jain, Christina Carter-Brown, Thuy Truong, Julio Villegas and Alberto Fonseca. After meeting with the cast of characters at Alexander School, including Bill MacDonald, director of technology, Luis Velasquez, a Los Angeles Unified School District technical expert, and Connie Smith, former Alexander School principal, the students have begun work to turn the facility into a state-of-the-art multimedia studio.   

“By the end of the semester, the laboratory will have four new computers, which means all 30 students in the fourth and fifth grades will have one, and a complement of multimedia tools, including two digital cameras, two video cameras, a server, a ceiling-mounted projector and a projector screen, scanners and a new podium,” said Nancy Sweeny, program specialist for the Viterbi School Engineering Writing Program, which spearheaded the newest of USC’s many service-learning programs. “Our students will have to spend some time setting everything up and integrating the equipment with the existing equipment before Phase 1 is completed.”

Reversing the ‘Digital Divide’
The larger goal is to create a sustained effort to reverse the growing “digital divide” that exists among many of the children attending the Alexander School, said Stephen Bucher, director of the Viterbi School Engineering Writing Program.

"I found the site. How about you?" two girls ask with big smiles.
“That involves helping not only the school’s faculty, but the children and their parents become more proficient in these increasingly vital academic and workplace skills,” he said. “As they become more comfortable with the technology, they will create a more supportive learning environment for the students and be able to help students’ families.”

The Alexander School is the product of a unique partnership between the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the California Science Center. The school is a K-5th grade elementary school of about 700 students located next to the California Science Center and surrounded by world-class museums, the University of Southern California and the Wallis Annenberg Building for Science Learning and Innovation. More than 70 percent of the students are from the surrounding neighborhood and many are second language learners, but with such an abundance of resources at its fingertips, the school plays an integral part in the neighboring community by collaborating with nearby institutions to offer specialized science and technology programs.

The students are taught in an integrated learning style that allows them to learn science through other disciplines, such as language arts and social sciences, MacDonald said. Although the math and science programs are thriving, the students still lag behind in the computer skills they need to be successful.

“Ideally, we want them to be as comfortable with computers as they are with pencils,” MacDonald said. “For instance, when they are learning to read and write, we want them to type their work on a computer or learn how to communicate through email.  These innovative methods of teaching will become a great asset to the community because they prepare neighborhood children from diverse backgrounds to pursue higher education.”

The TAP program is one of a number of service-learning programs and projects that have emerged in the last few years to meet USC’s strategic initiative to incorporate service learning in all undergraduate majors. Bucher’s Engineering Writing Program, which is a founding member of USC's Community-Based Learning Collaborative, has provided the Viterbi School with
A computer whiz.
most of its service-learning programs and continues to share lessons learned from each project to determine the best practices for community-based learning at USC.  Students implementing the TAP program were coordinated by the Viterbi School's new Klein Institute for Undergraduate Engineering Life (KIUEL).

Genesis of the Project
To make the Alexander School computer upgrade happen, five student groups from the Engineering Writing Program’s WRIT 340 advanced writing course responded to a request for proposals from the Alexander School to improve the performance and usability of the school’s student computer lab.  In the fall semester of 2005, a group of undergraduates developed solutions ranging from reconfiguration of new or existing furniture and purchase of carpet and paint to purchase and installation of new hardware and software and adding computer technicians and trainers to support the computer lab. The students included Tanya Cabral, Hilton Chu, Jason Louie, Man Hon Au, Pablo Almazan, Bret Greene, Shireen Hyderi, Humberto Chavez, Jui-Ling Chen, Joanna Rytwinska, Hin Lau, Erica Murphey, Nicholas Rapp and Ian Serlin.
Alexander School mural in the open-air foyer known as the "big lab."

While all of this was going on, Bucher began to work with Alexander School staff Connie Smith, former principal, Bill MacDonald, chairman of technology for the school, Frank Stirling, a USC alumnus and USC student mentor, and Jean Schoenberg, a WRIT 340 course instructor. 

The proposal was funded as a technology advancement project, designed to foster the development of technological literacy skills in the students, parents and teachers at a low-income elementary school in central Los Angeles.

The project has three phases. Phase 1 is devoted to the redesign and upgrade of the existing elementary school computer lab.  Phase 2 will include teacher training on specific computer applications and the development of technology-integrated lesson plans. Phase 3 will focus on the creation of a student technology team and regular parent technology training sessions in the evenings.  Together, these three phases will culminate in a comprehensive and far-reaching technology integration plan to keep the “digital divide” in check and empower students, parents and faculty at Alexander Science Center to become computer literate.

Once the hardware has been installed, integrated with existing hardware, and tested, students will begin to develop a program of teacher training and lessons.

Teacher Training
“Teacher training is necessary to ensure that the teachers at the Alexander Science School have the skills and comfort level necessary to integrate technology into their teaching practices,” Bucher said. 
A new Internet shortcut for the kids.

Viterbi engineering students and those teachers at the Alexander School familiar with a particular technology will lead workshops on general computer use and train the remaining faculty on specific applications. Once the lessons have been created, they will be compiled in a technology library so that they are accessible to all staff.  Ideally, these lessons will also be modeled and/or shared with other staff members in subsequent technology training sessions. 

In Phase 3, students will form a “student tech team” and establish regular parent workshops.  The student tech team will consist of 12 Alexander School students: four from 3rd grade, four from 4th grade, and four from 5th grade.  These students will attend a bi-weekly, after-school computer club to gain expertise with both computer hardware and software.  Once trained, they will provide tech support and student training to the school, and begin to maintain a student-driven school website. 

Parent workshops will occur twice a month in the evening, according to Bucher.  One session will be presented in English and the other in Spanish.  During these two-hour sessions,  parents will learn the value of computers, how to install and operate them, and how to use various applications like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and the Internet.

--Diane Ainsworth