New program combines technology, community service

Participants in the START initiative, the Service & Technology Academic Resource Team, share how their school's service-learning projects pair technology and community service.
Participants in the START program describe how their service-learning projects pair technology and community service.

Students at six schools from across the country are taking part in a pilot program that uses “service learning” as a way to revitalize their schools and communities while gaining valuable 21st-century skills.

The Service & Technology Academic Resource Team (START) program, launched by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and Microsoft Corp., aims to create a new kind of collaboration between students and teachers through technology-focused service learning.

CNCS and Microsoft chose six schools to participate in the program initially. The schools—Winston Churchill Middle School in California, Tupelo Middle School in Mississippi, Lower East Side Preparatory High School in New York, East Garner Magnet Middle School in North Carolina, Parkway West High School in Pennsylvania, and Forest Park High School in Virginia—will receive grants and serve as national test sites for how schools can integrate service learning and technology into the classroom.

Finding good programs and working to bring them to scale is something Mary Cullinane, director of innovation for U.S. Education at Microsoft, said is vital.

“We can’t constantly create the wheel. We need to look around the country to see who’s doing something that works and help them duplicate it,” she said at the Jan. 25 START launch. “Our job is to figure out ways to take what these schools are doing and make sure it’s not the exception.”

Karen Cator, director of education technology for the U.S. Department of Education, echoed Cullinane.

“Things that work need to be brought to scale. We need to spread these [programs] far and wide so that every school will have access to them,” she said.

Service-learning activities let students serve their communities within the framework of their curriculum, said Elson Nash, acting director of Learn and Serve America with CNCS.

“21st-century skills are often not measurable on a test. Those children who master those skills will be the ones to get the jobs in the future,” he said.

Jessica Decker, a student at Forest Park High School, said participating in service-learning projects has given her a clearer view of the world beyond school, something she said has changed the way she envisions her future.

Forest Park partnered with Students Working to Advance Technology to participate in the “Bridging the Gap” project, which has students rebuild and refurbish donated computers that are then donated to elementary, middle, and high school students who need them.

Decker said that while she originally hoped to be a fashion designer and have her own boutique in the future, she now looks at things from a global perspective.

“I want [my business] to be huge, and then I can look at ways to give a portion of the proceeds to charity,” she said.

Parkway West High School partnered with the Urban Technology Project to create a program in which students provide technology support. Their UrbanTech Program (UTP) is designed within a “cascading mentoring framework” in which higher-education students and UTP staff—which includes AmeriCorps VISTA members and Digital Service Fellows—serve as mentors and tutors to urban youth.

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