Realizing a commitment to education is not just the responsibility of school systems, some large technology companies—including Microsoft and Intel—are spending millions of dollars on after-school programs to augment the technology education that schools provide to better prepare kids for 21st-century careers.

Intel Corp. is spending $20 million over the next five years to build 100 Intel Computer Clubhouses in after-school programs across the country and around the world. Adobe Systems Inc., Macromedia, Hewlett-Packard Co., and Autodesk Inc. have joined Intel in this effort by committing a combined $10 million in high-speed networking equipment, software, hardware, and services.

Also, the Lego Co. is donating Mindstorms kits to all 100 clubhouses so kids can build robots and other interactive constructions, and Haworth Inc. will provide discounts on furniture.

“Intel, Adobe, and others recognize we can’t put the responsibility on schools alone,” said Gail Breslow, director of the Intel Computer Clubhouse based in Boston’s Museum of Science. “The school day is only a small part of a student’s day.”

The Intel clubhouses are intended to be after-school “invention workshops,” where students ages eight to 18 can express themselves through computer-based projects and learn valuable skills at the same time. They can create computer-generated art, music, and video; build robots; develop their own web pages; and program their own computer games.

“Schools have a lot of magical moments, but the Computer Clubhouse is about seeing those magical moments replicated a thousand times a day,” Breslow said. The computers are arranged in clusters, the chairs are on wheels, the lighting is subdued like in an artist’s studio, and walls are filled with student artwork to inspire other kids.

The clubhouses are self-motivated environments. “[Students are] there because they want to be there,” Breslow said. “We’re really seeing young people at their best, where young people and adults are working together.”

The driving force for these clubhouses is concern about not only the skill level of the 21st-century work force, but also its diversity.

“We need programs that help young people achieve,” said Rosalind Hudnell, worldwide community education manager for Intel Computer Clubhouses. “From our standpoint, it’s really important that all young people are developing themselves in technology.”

At the clubhouses, the focus is on learning, building confidence, and exposing kids to technology.

“If young people want to play video games, they have to play video games they created themselves,” Hudnell said. “It proves to them that they can do things that are perceived as hard.”

Kids who participate in these kinds of programs are more apt to finish school, go on to college, and enter into technology jobs, Hudnell said.

“We all recognize the need,” she said. “If we don’t collaborate and increase that pool [of technology workers], we are all going to suffer.”

Microsoft Corp. is another tech giant that sees value in after-school programs. In December, Microsoft donated $100 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

“It’s a great time to be a kid,” Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told youngsters in the gymnasium of a Harlem Boys & Girls Club. “Working together, Microsoft and the Boys & Girls Clubs are committed to bridging the digital divide and providing all our children with the technology skills to succeed.”

Gates said his company’s donation of $88 million in software and $12.3 million in cash over the next five years will bring technology access and programs to more than 3.3 million children and teens through the Boys & Girls Clubs across the country.

“This is one of the largest gifts that Microsoft has ever given, and the impact on three million kids makes [this gift], every dollar of it, very worthwhile,” Gates said.

Companies that are donating money and equipment to create after-school technology programs may be following the lead of the federal government, which has made after-school programs a recent priority. The federal budget for FY2001 includes $846 million for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which is accepting new proposals through March 30.

Schools can use these funds to provide after-hours technology education, as well as tutoring and homework help, academic enrichment, college prep activities, enrichment through the arts (including chorus, band, and drama), drug- and violence-prevention counseling, and supervised recreational opportunities.

A recent Justice Department report credited the expanded availability of after-school programs with helping to lower juvenile crime rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Former Education Secretary Richard W. Riley recently issued a report on the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. In his announcement, Riley said, “Why are after-school programs important? Because children’s minds don’t close down at 3 p.m., and neither should their schools.”

According to government statistics, an estimated 8 million or more school-age “latchkey children” go home to an empty house after school on any given day.

Links:

Intel Computer Clubhouses
http://www.intel.com/education/icc

Boys & Girls Clubs of America
http://www.bgca.org

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
http://www.gatesfoundation.org

21st Century Community Learning Centers program
http://www.ed.gov/21stcclc