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STINA COOKE INTERVIEW

Cooking Up Creativity

Stina Cooke of The Computer Museum talks to Christine Kerrigan about her work helping kids discover art and technology.

by Christine Kerrigan

Stina Cooke is the program developer at the Computer Museum's Computer Clubhouse, a model after-school learning environment where young people aged 10-18 from Boston's inner city neighborhoods use technology to design individual projects. With guidance from adult mentors, Clubhouse members use leading-edge software to create artwork, animations, simulations, multimedia presentations, virtual worlds, music, web sites, and robotics. Some of the work will be on display next May, when the Computer Museum transforms itself into the headquarters for the Boston Cyberarts Festival.

Q:   What was the inspiration behind the Computer Clubhouse?

A:   About five years ago, Natalie Rusk, the Computer Museum's former director of education, and the MIT Media Lab's Mitchel Resnick held a series of workshops to explore how the computer could be used to control the movement of objects such as Legos. Some of the youngsters who participated in the workshops were so enthusiastic about the experience that they began returning to the museum, hoping to work on similar projects. At that time, there was no place to direct them. There weren't any regularly scheduled programs that provided kids with technology to design and develop their own ideas.

Therefore, Natalie Rusk and Mitchel Resnick worked very hard to create the concept for the Clubhouse, write for funding, set up the facilities, and launch the first Boston Computer Clubhouse in 1993. Gail Breslow, Clubhouse director since 1995, has led the development of many new programs such as Clubhouse to College/Clubhouse to Career, and disseminated the Clubhouse model nationally and internationally.

Q:   I'm curious about the clubhouse's involvement in the Cyberarts Festival. Are the members working on a specific project for the Festival?

A:   We are thrilled that we'll have the opportunity to showcase our Clubhouse members' artwork in one of the Computer Museum's galleries during the Cyberarts Festival. We are putting together an exhibition, which will include the following: print art of featured artists who have developed a body of work over time; a slide show of Clubhouse members' art; video; animation; a display of computer controlled devices; music created in the Clubhouse music studio; and a web site, which reflects the physical gallery.

Q:   How does the environment in the Clubhouse differ from a classroom setting?

A:   In a classroom, a teacher is responsible for planning a daily lesson, and ensuring that students learn specific skills and information. At the Clubhouse, there is no one person who plays the role of the teacher. The Clubhouse members decide for themselves what they would like to learn. We give them the tools and the guidance to help them accomplish their goals.
Since the kids are working on projects of interest to them, they learn with such vigor and enthusiasm. You'd be amazed by the creative energy these youngsters pour into their projects, and by the skills that they acquire in the process. We're often astounded at the types of projects our members create. We're excited that the Cyberarts Festival will give people in the Boston community an opportunity to see the wonderful artwork our kids are making.

Q:   When a young person visits the Clubhouse, what do you hope he or she will learn?

A:   We don't worry so much that the kids learn specific software packages, or acquire particular technical skills. Instead, we're hoping that our members will achieve a sort of "technology fluency." By this, I mean that our members should feel comfortable using technological tools to express themselves creatively. We want them to develop the confidence to figure things out, and have the courage to make lots of mistakes.

In our society, kids hardly ever see adults learn. Whether it is the teacher, parent or coach, the adult is generally the authority figure, who passes on knowledge to children and young adults. We feel it is very important for kids to see adults learning. Our mentors must have the courage to say, "I don't know how to solve it, but let's see if we can figure it out together."

Q:   Although the Clubhouse is a drop-in program, I'm sure you must have a handful of kids who come here quite regularly.

A:   Oh, absolutely. There's generally a group of kids who come to the Clubhouse on a regular basis, and they become the core members. Some of them are here almost every day. These core participants play a key role in the atmosphere at the Clubhouse, because their projects and enthusiasm provide inspiration for other members. For example, one boy came in regularly, and worked mostly on scanning in his character drawings, and then manipulating the images to create his art (e.g. playing with the colors, backgrounds, etc.). Well, before you knew it, this boy's style began to emerge as a Clubhouse style. That is, until someone else came along and began doing a lot of experimentation with collaging images. No one ever said, "This week we're going to begin working on collaging." It just happened as a result of one participant saying to another, "Wow, that's cool, how did you do that?"

Q:   Do you ever say to yourself, "I can't believe that one of our members made this?"

A:   All the time! Some of the art, animation, robotics, and music that the members create would just blow you away. People have asked us to join shows and exhibitions on the Internet, and they're expecting "kid art." However, the powerful tools, mentoring, and the excellent resources enable youngster to produce "adult world art" in a lot of ways.

Q:   Have you seen noticeable changes in the members' attitudes and behavior?

A:   Definitely. For example, one member came to the Clubhouse primarily to use the Internet. When a mentor encouraged him to experiment with other technologies, this young man soon discovered that he was quite an artist. He started incorporating poetry in his art, and even began experimenting with video. Now he's going to college, and has decided to major in computers. It's quite common for our former members to study computers or graphic art in college and university.

Very few youngsters arrive to the Clubhouse with some deep desire to become an artist or programmer. Some kids come with the idea that the Clubhouse may be a fun place to play computer games. However, they quickly discover that they can design and invent their own computer games. It's often through experimentation that the kids discover their own talent and interests.

Q:   How about the mentors? How would you describe your mentor population?

A:   We have a diverse group of people from the local community who participate in our mentor program. Given Boston's large student population, we have many graduate and undergraduates students from area colleges and universities who serve as mentors. In addition to students, we have quite a few working professionals and former Clubhouse members who choose to become mentors. In fact, some former Clubhouse members have played integral roles in helping other Boston area clubhouses to establish their programs, and build strong mentor programs.

We have a wonderful group of mentors. But we are always interested in recruiting new mentors who are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge and skills with the Clubhouse community. We've just recently begun a community mentor program to recruit more mentors from the communities where our kids live.

Q:   What kind of commitment do mentors make?

A:   Our mentors commit to volunteering two hours or more on the same day every week. Though our kids are drop-ins, we feel that establishing consistency is very important. It is very typical for a child to come to the Clubhouse on a particular day of the week, because he knows that a mentor who specializes in a specific area such as animation or graphic design will be there.

Q:   Can you give us a glimpse of what the future has in store for the Clubhouse?

A:   We currently have eight Clubhouses - four in Boston, and four in the following cities: Brooklyn, N.Y.; Columbus, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Esslingen, Germany. We are looking forward to establishing more Clubhouses in various cities throughout the U.S. and abroad.

The Cyberarts Festival is a wonderful opportunity for the Boston community to share in our excitement for the type of artwork and creative projects that Clubhouse members are making. We look forward to seeing you there!

Christine Kerrigan, a graphic designer and free-lance writer, is a member of the Cyberarts Festival Committee (email: ).

 


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