Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Scratch Project
Play "Walking in the Desert"

See more student projects like this

"Hello world!" as any beginning programmer knows, is the first computer program you ever write. It announces to the world that "you're in," you know how to sink your hands into the guts of the computer and get it to do what you want. You can now use the computer as a tool to communicate, to calculate, or to do whatever your imagination can come up with.

The program you see above is a sort of "Hello World!" program written by Queso (Jose, on the left) in the computer class I'm teaching in La Carpio. I'm IMMENSELY excited about all the cool stuff they've been doing. This is far easier to show than to explain, so if you're reading this on facebook or e-mail, make sure you read the original post on my blog by clicking here. That way you can see the videos and play the games. In fact, go ahead and skim through the article for the project links first, and then read it later if you get time.

In case you're just reading this, however, I'll try to explain a little bit about what's been cooking in the La Carpio Computer Lab. Settle in, it's a long story.

For the past four months, I've increased significantly the type and amount of involvement in La Carpio. Starting in May, in addition to the weekly after-school kids activities on Thursday, I would go down on Tuesday as well to help repair computers in a computer lab they have, supervise their "game playing," and teach them a few basic computing concepts. For the past few months, I've poured considerable time into their little computer lab, resulting in 10 smoothly-running, virus-free, internally-networked computers. If this sounds like a small accomplishment, let me augment it slightly by mentioning that the first time I used my flash drive in those computers, my personal computer caught 408 viruses (3 strains) and took over an hour to clean. This trend continued weekly until I had disinfected every computer and put updated virus scanners on each one.

Squeaky-clean machines meant their games would run better - but it also meant I could start loading up some educational games for them to start using - creating their own worlds and thinking in different ways - logically, structurally, narratively, and artistically by painting their own pictures, creating their own levels for games, cutting together videos, and even writing their own programs. When art, creation, story-telling, and self-expression started happening, they got excited. And I got excited. Some of their creations are linked from this blog entry.

I can't tell you the measure of joy it gives me to see these kids using the computer to create their own levels, to draw things, to create stories and program actors to live out their stories, to use graphics from their lives - from camp, from their neighborhood, of themselves, and genuinely own their creations in the sense that they more closely touch their reality. The programs are in Spanish, so they understand the instructions they are writing. The photos, for example, are either taken by me of their neighborhood, or taken by them of activities such as camp retreat when I trained a few of them to take photos using my camera. Their programs and videos are beginning to take on a form of "digital storytelling" that captures their interest in a way that familiarizes them with the computer as a tool. It's helping them become computer literate. It's helping them use it to create.

One of the main programs we've been using is called "Scratch," a simple program designed by MIT to help kids ages 8 and up develop the skills necessary for computer engineering in the 21st century. It's very simple and extremely fun to use - scenarios and "programs" are written by dragging instructions from a toolbox to your workspace. These "instructions," color-coded and shaped like puzzle pieces that snap together, create a set of commands that manipulate the objects on your screen. I could go into deeper jargon on the programming skills and logical thinking concepts Scratch helps develop, but that's been done in great detail on MIT's Scratch website. To put it simply, it's like building a program out of legos, where each lego block represents instructions for the computer to follow.

Oh, the flexibility of the Scratch program is incredible - you can upload projects to the web to share with others, and download theirs. Once you've written a program, with a simple click you can translate all the instructions into 50 different languages, including Spanish, Creole, and Arabic. I mention Creole and Arabic because whenever I see a program that can translate into Creole, I know it's designed to go the extra mile in reaching isolated areas. And whenever a program can translate into Arabic or Thai or Russian, I know the programmers went the extra mile in dealing with right-to-left text compatibility and complex character sets.

Once the computers were clean of viruses and being used for collaborative projects, I set up a small network between them, just 10 computers connected through a 16-port router. That way the kids can share resources amongst all the computers and play games "interactively" with each other instead of in isolation. This is sure to result in a few fights, but competition teaches a lot too, so we'll see how that goes.

And networked computers lead to the final phase in this project - connectivity and business. There is no internet connection in La Carpio. Every project I mentioned above required several weeks' planning and numerous hour-long bus rides to and from my house to download resources to get the computers running. If I forgot one thing or brought the wrong file, it meant waiting a week for the next trip down here. Aside from inconvenience, the fact that La Carpio has no internet access (that I've come across yet, anyway) is probably a strategic move, as is the relocation and isolation of the poor and immigrants to this area, as is the positioning of a garbage dump that receives 700 tons of trash per day at the other end of their community, as is the thin, one-km road that limits all entry points by vehicle in and out of the area to one. Read more about La Carpio in one of my previous blog posts. All that to say, getting internet in La Carpio would bring opportunities to the community to stay in contact with family in other countries, to learn and read and find solutions to issues that affect them, to train themselves in some skill, and to research, print, and facilitate any legal documentation (residency or work visas) they may need to do.

Connecting the La Carpio community to the internet and using the computer lab part-time as an internet café to offer services locally is a future goal, one fraught with obstacles and unknowns. But strategically it will likely be an awesome resource for the community.

All these technological advances mean nothing if there isn't some sense of purpose and intentionality behind them. I work a lot with computers, but technology for technology's sake never really sat well with me. A fellow language student, after months of leading a step-by-step discipleship class with some of the kids in La Carpio, and after diligently walking them through the steps of salvation and foundational biblical concepts, told me he'd been praying specifically for a way for the kids to make money. At first, I didn't understand why his ardent passion for evangelism translated into a prayer for employment opportunities.

But it makes sense. Most of the young kids I'm teaching in that class will graduate from 6th grade pretty soon, the highest level of education offered inside La Carpio. The chances of going on to high school afterward are slim. During that time they're at a pretty high risk for roaming the streets and getting involved in gang activities. This is another reason why the soccer and youth activities Lalo (the missionary there) does are great in giving the kids something to do with their spare time that they LOVE.

All that to say, computer literacy and ability to speak English are 2 skills that will give you a fighting chance at securing any type of employment, and considerably reputable employment at that (I know you won't read it but a study by some branch of the World Bank released a report in 2006 analyzing the impact of Intel's relocation to Costa Rica). Keep the La Carpio computer lab in your prayers. Please pray that in some way the problem-solving skills and computer literacy these kids get in that small, hot classroom will help keep them of the streets and in good employment or in further education.

The second philosophy behind the work put into this has to do with fighting marginalization and neutralizing structural violence. Fancy words to say - God doesn't see a distinction between immigrants and the poor in La Carpio and the rich diplomats living across the valley, flying over their heads in tourist jets and sending all the trash to the landfill behind their houses. Both should be given opportunities to work, and make a safe, legally protected home. The people of La Carpio face a particular set of challenges in reaching those goals, which opportunities for education and employment within their community will help neutralize. Please keep the community and kids of La Carpio in your prayers as well.

And so, this project doesn't just get me all excited and keep me busy doing tech stuff that interests me. It is a strategic move consistent with MAF's vision of reaching people in isolation, with direly needed resources - in this case, people isolated culturally, economically, and geographically will receive employment opportunities, training, and connectivity using the computer as a tool to help deliver those desperately needed resources. And "resources" refers partly to the physical equipment, but moreso to the process of personal formation and competency in an empowering way that makes them less dependent on the outside world for "stuff," and more self-reliant on themselves for solving their own problems. This is the strategic "theory" behind the joy of the work, that when coupled together, I believe glorifies God and gives him room to work, taking control of the "project" from our hands and putting it in his. Which, for all the hard work and good theory I can put into it, will amount to nothing if prayer and God's guidance were not spurring it on from the beginning.