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Media Lab research aids Maine job-training program

Researchers in the Media Laboratory's Epistemology and Learning group have taken their work on the road--to Limestone, ME, where they have developed a pioneering vocational training program.

Using technologies developed by research scientist Fred Martin, Mitchel Resnick (the Fukutake Career Development Professor of Research in Education) and others in the Media Lab's Epistemology and Learning group, LEGO Professor of Learning Research Seymour Papert and his graduate student David Cavallo are working with the Training and Development Corp. of Bucksport, ME, to create an innovative program at the new Loring Job Corps Center.

The center provides a one-year, residential job-training program for youths, ages 16-24, most of whom are school dropouts from poor and at-risk backgrounds. The program now has about 60 students, but will increase to nearly 400 when the center is fully operational.

What makes the program unique are its immersive learning environment and emphasis on computer technology. Initially, all staff and students spend a month working with Logo, LEGO/Logo and other programs that help them to develop technological fluency. Students use these technological tools to work on individual projects specifically related to their vocational paths.

Logo is a programming language especially for children developed in the late 1960s by researchers at MIT in collaboration with Bolt, Beranek and Newman. LEGO/Logo, a programmable construction kit enabling children to program and control their LEGO constructions, was also developed at MIT in collaboration with the LEGO toy company in the mid-1980s.


"We're trying to get away from the idea of the teacher standing in front of a class and delivering information," Mr. Cavallo said. "This is a model that has not worked for these kids in the past. Instead, we give them autonomy and encourage them to use an engineering approach to problem solving--like using GPS, GIS and Logo to map conservation land and protected wildlife; designing a prototype special-purpose vehicle and then actually building the real thing, or designing a Web site.

"They are working on problems that don't have a right or wrong answer, but require skills that can be modified and applied to any number of potential jobs."

If the first two months are any indication, the approach seems to be working. There have been no dropouts, while traditional job-training programs usually suffer a 40 percent dropout rate. The students have held a ramp-climbing contest for vehicles they've constructed, created various Logo geometrical games, and built a LEGO soda machine that dispenses real cans of soda.

"What we're seeing are kids who, for the first time in their lives, are doing things they always thought you have to be 'smart' to do," Mr. Cavallo said. "Our hope is that they will better develop their critical thinking abilities and apply them to take more control over their own lives."

(This story originally appeared in the March issue of Frames).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 4, 1997.

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