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Applying Service Learning to Technology

Students taking ownership of learning is what Generation YES (Youth & Educators Succeeding), or GenYES, and the MOUSE Squad programs are all about.

GenYeS is a professional development program that has students playing a major role in helping teachers integrate technology into classrooms. Founded in 1996 at the Olympia (Wash.) School District as a five-year U.S. Department of Education Technology Innovation Challenge grant, the program has served more than 1,200 schools around the world, with about 75,000 students participating.

The MOUSE Squad program, provided by MOUSE, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997, is very similar in that it trains and supports students in managing leading-edge technical support help desks in their schools, improving the ability to use technology and providing a 21st century experience for students. But it differs from GenYES in that it focuses on underserved students in schools where, on average, 70 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, according to Carole Wacey, MOUSE executive director.

GenYES President Sylvia Martinez says that boosting the use of technology in classrooms to keep pace with society has students tackling a problem that is just as significant as cleaning up a marsh or engaging in other service learning activities. When teachers trust students with an important job, Martinez says, “they learn to trust themselves and build self-esteem that improves academic performance. including students as stakeholders, allies and advocates for the use of technology empowers them and brings their voice, passion and energy to the table to solve problems.”

A thriving GenYES presence exists at the San Juan Unified School District in Carmichael, Calif. initially funded by an enhancing education through technology (EETT) grant, the program is now self-sustaining and includes six K8 schools with plans for expansion next year. GenYES runs as an elective computer course but has students and teachers partnering to infuse technology into other curricula, such as language arts and math, according to Nina Mancina, San Juan’s program specialist for special projects and grants.

Since 2005, 1,500 students have incorporated technology into diverse projects. They’ve worked with teachers to create presentations for classroom instruction using software programs like PowerPoint and Keynote and to build projects that can be taught to peers in various subjects. For example, a past project enabled math classes to calculate slopes, heights and distances using Google Earth, a virtual globe, map and geography information program.

In another possible project, language arts students can create a modern take on a book report using Comic Life, a desktop publishing computer program. Students learn skills like inserting text, images and speech bubbles into a finished comic tale, summarizing stories, giving stories alternative endings and addressing questions and points discussed in class.

A key component of GenYES is the pairing of students and teachers to find ways to creatively integrate technology programs into the curriculum. “The students become so engaged as they find this connection with teachers, and [the process] gives them a sense of belonging that is very powerful,” Mancina says. Students often act as teachers for a day, giving presentations about the ins and outs of working with a particular computer program in front of an audience of both instructors and peers. They are also called upon to perform technical support when computers break down.

Martinez notes that GenYES harnesses students’ technical expertise far beyond troubleshooting. Not only do students learn how to master technology, but they improve their communication skills by passing that knowledge on to teachers and other students, a process that boosts their confidence. “They learn how to help others, how to plan a project, how to speak and present, and how to be a leader in their community—all true 21st-century skills,” according to Martinez.

One of the MOUSE Squad schools, the Lower East Side Preparatory in New York City, was selected to participate in the Service & Technology Academic Resource Team (START), which is an initiative focused on integrating service learning and technology in the classroom. Microsoft and the Corporation for National and Community Service launched the initiative earlier this year. The 25 students on the MOUSE Squad in Lower East Side Prep endure a 10-module certification program, in which they learn how to manage a help desk, learn project management skills and learn how to work with a team. Students are providing technical support and even helping teachers use technology effec- tively in the classroom, Wacey says.

In an independent evaluation conducted by Fordham University, released in May 2009, results confirm that the MOUSE Squad students had improved their communications, teambuilding, leadership and problem-solving skills. “They are more motivated to do more in school and they are attending school more often,” Wacey stated, in reflecting on the results.