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Turning Teens Into Techies And Online Activists

There is a bill in Congress to prohibit the use of the word "French" by U.S. citizens - French fries would have to become freedom fries; French toast, freedom toast; French Canadians, Freedom Canadians. This at least is the claim of a satirical Web site linked to by Patriots On Parade, one of several Web sites put together by New York City high school students as part of the sixth annual Digital Day Camp, the brainchild of a non-profit organization that focuses on new media education, Eyebeam.

Each year, Digital Day Camp picks a theme; this year, it was civil disobedience. In particular, the program focused on alternative methods of disagreement and protest among many communities.  This year's projects included a spoof on homeland security, Homelandschmecurity, which features a satirical cast of fictional super heroes like "Duct Tape Man," "Gas Mask Man," "Detention Center Man" and " Shoe Inspection Man";  Classism Stinks,  which includes man-in-the-street interviews about sanitation issues, and photographs of garbage, with the goal of highlighting the difference in garbage problems between rich and poor neighborhoods; and Sweatcampwhich uses a comic approach to probe child labor and sweatshops.

At a time when the music industry is filing lawsuits against 12-year-olds for downloading songs from the Internet, it is refreshing to learn of an organization that channels teen online savvy into activism and political engagement.

Another form of engagement by a New York non-profit is the mighty MOUSE, which teaches technology skills to public school kids.   Since 1997, MOUSE -- "Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education" - has created "MOUSE Squads," as they are known, in some three dozen New York City public high schools and middles schools, recruiting and training students to set up and run a technology "help desk" in their schools. The help desks provide tech support for about 22 hours a week. 

Almost a third of Squad members are girls and almost three quarters of MOUSE Squad students are Latino, Asian and African American.  MOUSE is particularly interested in promoting young women's interest in technology.  In addition to the MOUSE Squads, there are 1,500 volunteer tech professionals who have worked a collective 40,000 hours to put 50,000 teachers and students online in the past year.

Some of MOUSE's recent projects include building a community technology center in Washington Heights and installing computers and a technical training program in 14 schools in Central Harlem.  The organization also ran a city-wide online newspaper contest for teams of high school students, in partnership with Bell Atlantic, The NY Times, iXL and Small World Entertainment. 

MOUSE has also helped the city save over $400,000 for 36.  "In these difficult economic times," said Councilmember Gale Brewer, a champion of the program, " MOUSE Squads not only save the city money that it would otherwise have to spend on outside technical support, but the program also teaches critical jobs skills that are absolutely essential in this new economy."

There are many other worthy tech programs for youth:

Computers for Youth is an organization that aims to improve the educational, social and economic prospects for low-income students and their families by providing them with home computers and the skills to use them.

Change for Kids is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving children's education in New York City's most under-funded public schools.

Voluntech aims to promote the equitable distribution of technology by bringing together volunteer technology experts with non-profit organizations, schools, and community groups.

City Kids aims to engage and develop diverse young people to effect positive change in their lives, their communities, and the world. Their programs include CyberLinks which exposes youth to emerging computer technology.

Persholas provides career skills and rigorous on-site training for future computer technicians.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

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