Cover Story - July 13, 2011

Bridging the Divide

New tech center aims to take kids across and beyond the 'digital divide'

by Caitlin Moyles

"Game on."

Mike Woollems, corporate VP of finance for Advanced Micro Devices, is addressing a room full of children and high school students at the Menlo Park branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula. It's the grand opening of the club's new technology center and Mr. Woollems is encouraging the kids to continue their interest in video games. Designing them, that is.

Advanced Micro Devices and Microsoft partnered to bring the tech center, known as a Club Tech Center of Excellence, to the McNeil Family Clubhouse at 401 Pierce Road in Menlo Park.

The new tech center, the 11th in the nation, is part of a national Club Tech program, started in 2000 by Hilary Clinton and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in Harlem, New York, to bridge the "digital divide" between wealthy and under-served communities. Microsoft launched the program with a $100 million donation to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Equipped with current hardware and software, the center is intended to increase computer literacy; bolster science, technology, engineering, and math skills; and keep kids in under-served communities engaged in learning, club officials said.

Advanced Micro Devices contributed about 10 new computers, a $5,000 stipend, and other hardware for video game design. Microsoft donated new software such as Scratch Animation and Kodu Game Lab as well as a $7,500 stipend, said Dan Rauzi, senior director of technology programs and youth development for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the national organization with which the local clubs are affiliated.

The stipends were used to revamp the space that was once a teen room and a reading room. The room now features a computer lab, a photography room with a space for kids to build Lego robotics, and a teen room.

In addition to contributing software, Microsoft has funded and worked with Boys & Girls Clubs of America to develop a training curriculum for Boys & Girls Clubs staff, Mr. Rauzi said. The curriculum encompasses basic computer literacy and academic skills, Lego robotics, video game design, and professional development skills (such as learning to use Microsoft Office) for the older kids.

"People have moved on from worrying about the digital divide, but it still exists," said Sid Espinosa, the mayor of Palo Alto and director of corporate giving at Microsoft who spoke at the event. "We cannot assume it's gone. Not having fluency in technology is something that impacts kids for the rest of their lives."

Software demos

School-age members of the Boys & Girls Club, garbed in brightly colored T-shirts, gave software demonstrations at the event. Alexis Garcia, a 17-year-old high school graduate who will attend Canada College in the fall, showed this reporter how he uses Scratch Animation to animate characters with certain functions that make them move, issue speech bubbles, and change colors on command. A friend looked on, clearly enjoying watching Alexis bring the characters to life.

Tonnia, 10, and Erika, 9, sat around a table with the younger children, where they built battery-powered Lego robots, using the instruction manuals scattered across the table to guide them.

The Menlo Park clubhouse was chosen as a tech center site for several reasons, Mr. Espinosa said. Among them: the high graduation rate of its members, the demonstrated need, the club's location in and affiliation with Silicon Valley, and the ample volunteers to help the children make good use of the latest technology.

In his speech, Mr. Woollems described the Menlo Park clubhouse as a promising investment. "At this chapter of the Boys and Girls Clubs, the high school graduation rate is 88 percent, much higher than the surrounding community," he said. "I'm a finance guy, and I can't think of a higher return on investment than that."

Representatives of the Menlo Park clubhouse hinted that it was more than ready for the support.

"We have some amazing tech centers at our East Palo Alto and Redwood City locations, so it's nice to offer the same to the Menlo Park community," said Lauren Weston, development director of the seven Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, in an interview.

She emphasized the value of the practical, professional skills the curriculum teaches in addition to skill development in science, technology, engineering and math.

"Teaching them computer literacy and digital arts builds into what they're learning and provides them with a skill set they wouldn't have otherwise," she said. "One kid graduated with a design portfolio, which will help him freelance anything tech- or design-oriented."

An audacious 13-year-old boy named James wandered through the crowd throughout the event, taking pictures of people on a digital camera. When this reporter approached James and asked him about the pictures he was taking, he eagerly showed me photos of his friends sitting with Mayor Espinosa. He also talked about how he's met Mark Zuckerberg through the Boys & Girls Clubs and all the friends he's made at the Menlo Park clubhouse.

James will later use the computers in the photography room to upload and edit his pictures, said Richard Washington, unit director of the Menlo Park clubhouse. Photographing people at events also helps kids learn to interview and interact with others, he said.

James was asked about a couple high school-age students wearing headphones who were busy writing songs on GarageBand, a software program that allows users to write their own music by mixing original and pre-loaded tracks

"Oh yeah, they're really good," James said. "They're professionals."

Visit for more information about the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula.


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