Five minutes ago, they were sent to lunch. Now the kids are back—still clutching cookies and string cheese—clamoring to climb back aboard the Techmobile, a traveling motor home packed with the latest in computer technology.

“The kids love it,” said Rae Stacy, Techmobile teacher-driver-den mother, after firmly reminding the youngsters of the “no food on board” rule. “They get really excited and don’t want to leave.”

On this day, the Techmobile is parked at the Boys & Girls Club in Auburn, Wash. The 30-foot Winnebago is an outreach program created by the Boys & Girls Club of King County to bring computers—and a teacher—to kids whose families may not be able to afford one at home. The program debuted this summer.

With its eight desktop and four laptop computers, the wireless mobile computer lab regularly stops in community centers, housing developments, and schools.

“The plan is to keep the newest and latest technology, so we’re constantly keeping the community up to date,” Stacy said.

Kids ages 6 to 18 can climb aboard, at no charge, for classes on games and computer programs. They can also take pictures with digital cameras.

“I think it’s cool, because you learn new stuff about computers,” said Slavik Mironchuk, 14. “You can have a really good job with computers. This will help me.”

The Techmobile cost $200,000 to build. The initial funding was a $70,000 grant from Microsoft Corp. for a new technology lab. The rest came from the Boys & Girls Club of America, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the city of Seattle.

Special brackets keep the computers locked to the desks, while keyboards and mice are held in place with holsters and Velcro. The server is secured with shock and vibration isolators.

The aim is to close the “digital divide” between kids who have computers and those without—enabling more children to develop the technology skills that will help them succeed, said Daniel Johnson, president of the Boys & Girls Club of King County.

“Kids learn very fast,” said Larry Snyder, a University of Washington computer science and engineering professor. “The gap can be closed very rapidly with them.”

The Boys & Girls Club of King County hired Stacy to drive, teach, promote, and raise money for the Techmobile. The 26-year-old had previously sold computers, trained other employees about computers, and taught adults to read through a nonprofit agency. She was even a chauffeur for a while.

“It combined everything I’ve been doing in one job,” she said.

Since June, about 1,000 kids have stepped inside during the Techmobile’s 200 hours on the road.

Stacy said even those who do have home computers could use some help.

“Most kids—even those with two or three computers at home—I’ve found they don’t have the basic application skills,” said Stacy, who spends as much as eight hours a day, four to five days a week on the Techmobile. “They do eMail. They do internet. They do games.”

Stacy familiarizes children with computer basics, from opening and exiting programs to changing fonts. Work in the Techmobile is designed to be educational but fun. Younger children play Microsoft games, from Barney under the Sea to Arthur’s Brainteasers, while older kids can use programs such as Microsoft Word and Publisher, she said.

“Ages 9 and up, they really can comprehend and understand directions, so I put them through all the exercises,” she said.

Eleven-year-old Jeremy Johnson said he learned about computer programs in the Techmobile, although he prefers making computer movies. His favorite: a movie about a fighting cat.

Stacy likes lessons that let the kids create something. Her summer project binder was filled with fliers, “keep out” signs, and wanted posters decorated with clip art or photographs taken with the Techmobile’s two digital cameras. Creativity is encouraged.

“She is nice,” said Zereen Yousify, 9. “She isn’t like other computer teachers. Sometimes they yell at you if you do something wrong. She’ll just fix it for you.”

Added Slavik: “She explains good to the little kids, so they don’t screw up the computers.”

Several other organizations around the country have contacted Stacy about replicating the Techmobile. The Boys & Girls Club is hoping to someday have a second Techmobile, and negotiations for additional funding for fall classes are already taking place, Daniel Johnson said.

Enthusiastic despite her sometimes-exhausting job, Stacy said she has seen definite computer skill improvements in the kids she dealt with regularly during the summer. “I think it’s a fantastic project,” she said.

Boys & Girls Club of King County

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