Fourth grade students at Guy H. Benjamin Elementary School (GBS) are reaping the benefits of a potentially world-changing digital media pilot program steeped in mathematical and science concepts — but don’t tell the students.
They’re having too much fun playing with their new laptops.
A 10-week Waveplace Foundation digital media pilot program, which includes a laptop for each participant, kicked off at GBS on Thursday, January 10, but planning and preparation started locally and world-wide long before 2008.
One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) began years ago as an idea among Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab professors to construct a $100 laptop for use by children around the world.
Although many in the industry believed it was impossible, Nicholas Negroponte and other MIT Media Lab veterans, along with powerful financial backers, developed a $200 laptop with software made specifically for children and began launching OLPC projects globally last year.
Locally, the ball started rolling when a veteran Caribbean traveler and custom software and Web site company owner vacationing at Caneel Bay Resort last summer went for a tune-up session from Self Centre founder Jan Kinder.
“I had the vision for the whole thing years ago, but it wasn’t until last May when I was talking to a fourth grade teacher in the states about these laptops right before I was coming down to St. John that I thought we could actually start a program,” said Immuexa president and long-time Caribbean visitor Timothy Falconer.
“I went down to Caneel and I was doing a session with Jan [Kinder] when we got to talking about this OLPC program too,” Falconer continued. “Then I was at the Guy Benjamin School fund raiser at Skinny Legs and met principal Dionne Wells. And one thing led to another and we just all got together and said, ‘yeah, let’s do this.’”
Creating Digital Industry
Falconer and associates in his home state of Pennsylvania and on St. John started Waveplace Foundation, a non-profit company dedicated to seeing the OLPC vision carried out in the Caribbean.
St. John School of the Arts executive director Jan Kinder is also a member of Waveplace’s board of directors and believes the two organizations fit together perfectly.
“The whole program deals with technology, but through the arts,” said Kinder. “I thought it was the perfect fit for SJSA to provide guidance and help to organize this pilot project for the children. But the laptops and training for the GBS program were all provided by Waveplace Foundation.”
The non-profit group’s mission is “to create a thriving new industry in the Virgin Islands independent of tourism — one requiring no physical imports, no clearing of land, no retail space, no condos,” according to their Web site www.waveplace.com. “Our plan is to teach Virgin Islanders to create with computers, so they can export their most stunning resource, their creativity.”
Waveplace board members, working closely with OLPC, decided to focus solely on the Caribbean.
“My love for the Caribbean started with my mother who was a flight attendant in the 50s,” said Falconer. “She had a wanderlust and would bring us to the Caribbean twice a year. Growing up, the Caribbean was formative for me.”
“For the Caribbean to compete in the global marketplace the problem is importing and exporting physical things,” Falconer continued. “But digital media is fundamentally different because there is no importing or exporting. All you need is an internet connection and you can collaborate with anyone in the world.”
From Discussion to Action
With start up revenue from Immuexa, Waveplace Foundation board members began fund raising in earnest with a goal to start pilot laptop programs in St. John, St. Vincent and Haiti.
Seven months after their first meeting, Falconer and Kinder, along with tech mentor Bill Stelzer and other Waveplace board members, went from discussion to action and distributed XO laptops to 14 GBS fourth graders.
While Falconer works from Pennsylvania, Kinder and Stelzer are overseeing the program locally with GBS officials.
“We’re working closely with OLPC and they are very excited about what we’re doing,” said Falconer. “The way we do this is find an organization like St. John School of the Arts that has a history of knowing how to get things done.”
Textbook, DVD Series To Come
“Then we basically provide support and train people how to teach effectively on the laptops and really listen to them as they are the ones who know the region,” he continued. “Ultimately we will make a textbook and DVD series of video tutorials which will be made available to the rest of our training team.”
GBS fourth grade teacher Mary Burks, Stelzer and university student assistant Lareesa Williams will work with the students twice a week for 10 weeks. Sessions will center on math and science teachings, but in a clever way, explained Stelzer.
“It’s all about math teaching in a way that the students can visualize it,” Stelzer said. “It’s basically a computer program for kids. It allows them to create an object, program it to move around and set it to music.”
“So the students are learning mathematical concepts without really knowing it,” continued Stelzer. “The software is designed to let kids leapfrog ahead in programming.”
Cutting Edge Technology
With the ability to be used in direct sunlight and operate off its battery for three to five hours, the wireless XO computers include the latest technology in the field, Stelzer added.
“It’s really neat to see that we’re getting the best research down here,” he said. “And these computers have open source software so they can constantly be updated. Knowing how some schools are starved for resources, it’s really impressive to have these laptops.”
Throughout the program students will use a hands-on computer exploration system called Squeak Etoys, developed by industry pioneer Alan Kay and his Viewpoints Research Institute team.
A key part of Waveplace Foundation’s program is that each student receives their own laptop, explained Falconer.
“Each child gets to own their own laptop — it’s theirs to keep,” he said. “That is very important to OLPC. They believe there is a special magic that happens when a child has their own laptop.”
“It’s very difficult to simulate that relationship in a computer lab,” Falconer continued. “It fosters a sense of exploratory collaboration between the students. The best learning occurs between student and student and that becomes possible through the program.”
Arts is also a large part of the Waveplace pilot program, added Kinder.
“We’ll be utilizing local talent for inputting,” Kinder said. “Karen Samuel will be helping with art work and Koko [Mahlon Pickering] will supply different soundtracks like Quelbe to use in their programs. Since the students can interact with children around the world, they will share their own history.”
At the end of the 10 week program students will present original programming work, and Waveplace Foundation organizers will have created a DVD and textbook tutorial series, developed a research paper with standard methods for gauging students’ performances and a 45-minute documentary, Falconer explained.
Importance Of Culture
“The documentary will show, not only the pilot, but St. John in context because we believe that the cultural environment in which the learning occurs is a very important part of everything,” he said. “The focus is teaching children digital media skills and the end result will be them telling their own stories. They will use these tech tools to tell something about St. John.”
The program, however, will not simply end after 10 weeks, according to Kinder.
“After the 10 week program I’d like to see the students go more in depth and for the St. John School of the Arts to follow up on this and do more program animation,” she said. “The programs could really portray the island culture and keep the culture alive and let the world see that culture.”
Waveplace organizers are also hoping that with additional funding, the program could expand throughout the Virgin Islands.
“We’re waiting to see what happens on St. John, but our goal is to buy 8,000 to 10,000 laptops for Virgin Islands students,” said Falconer. “Our goal is to raise $2 million and train 10 mentors who could over time train as many as 400 teachers.”
While students will be mastering high-tech amination and programming skills during the program, they will also be having fun.
“I’ve never used a laptop like this before,” said GBS fourth grader LaTiah Jackson. “I can’t wait to make up games and play on it.”
“I’m excited to be really creative and make up my own songs and games,” said Tracy Scatliffe, another GBS fourth grader.
Changing the World
By giving GBS students the tools to compete in the modern digital world, the Project Waveplace program just might change that world, according to Stelzer.
“If this program works half the way we imagine, it will be impressive,” Stelzer said. “If it works the way it was designed to work, it will change the world.”
To support the Waveplace Foundation by making a donation or for more information, check out the group’s Web site www.waveplace.com.
The group is also seeking additional mentors. Anyone interested in becoming a mentor to instruct future Waveplace programs should email Kinder at stjohnschoolofthearts.org.