Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Overcoming the Digital Divide for Youngsters

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Overcoming the Digital Divide for Youngsters

Article excerpt

Working as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador in 2007, Nicolas Jaramillo introduced computers to children and adults who had never seen a hard drive, let alone powered one up.

Once he returned to the United States and landed a job as program director of the Pittsburgh Connect Hilltop Computer Center in 2010, Mr. Jaramillo, 28, thought he would finally have a chance to teach computer skills beyond the basics. The Louisiana native who holds a computer science degree from Iowa's Cornell College thought 8- to 14- year-olds taught in Allegheny County schools would surely be more equipped for concepts such as robotics and video game design than the disenfranchised groups he met during his tour of service.

As it turned out, the Hilltop neighborhood and El Salvador had more in common than he had hoped.

"When the kids came in it was reminiscent of my experience with the Peace Corps. It was, 'How do I turn this computer on?' I had no idea the disparities were this large," he said.

Two years later, despite the widespread digital divide, Mr. Jaramillo and the Hilltop Computer Center have much to celebrate. Some of the same children who struggled with introductory computer concepts a few years back will stand beside Google executives Saturday to unveil a touchscreen computer kiosk they helped to build from scratch.

The kiosk, a 40-inch monitor attached to rebuilt Gateway hard drives, came together last fall after three months of work. The youngest of the 15 students working on the project were mostly responsible for tearing apart and rebuilding hardware, while teenagers took on the task of installing software. The system runs Microsoft Windows 8 and Google's Android operating systems, which allows kids to play popular apps such as Angry Birds and Temple Run on the giant screen.

The idea of putting the students to work on a structured project arose not long after the center opened and staff members realized community youth had made it an after-school hub. The center, which was one of four to open with support of the YMCA of Pittsburgh in 2011, came as the result of a $748,000 grant received by the Neighborhood Learning Alliance's Pittsburgh Connects program, which was created to provide technology access to inner city neighborhoods.

The first few weeks, Mr. Jaramillo said between 20 to 30 youth would come to the center and watch "the same two YouTube videos over and over again." But once staff members introduced structured daily agendas that included computer classes and art workshops, as well as video game time, they started seeing notable changes.

"Working with the kids now, I can see they understand computer- based concepts better. They can set up email accounts, do Google searches," said Christian Freeberg, an AmeriCorps volunteer who has done community service with the center the past two years. …

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