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Educators meet, discuss K-12 outreach

Working with K-12 students benefits both children and their college-aged mentors, said Professor Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media Lab, who gave the keynote address at the first Continuum Conference, an event held to encourage more K-12 outreach on college campuses.

"MIT students should not only be at the university," said Resnick. "They should also be out in the world."

The conference brought roughly 50 educators from the Cambridge Public Schools and other area universities to the MIT Student Center on Evacuation Day (Friday, March 17) -- a holiday for local schools -- to discuss outreach ideas and opportunities in the Cambridge Public School system.

John Velasco, a graduate student in political science, planned and coordinated the conference along with Public Service Center Director Sally Susnowitz and conference coordinator Chandra Clarke.

As the creator of iMath, a program that links Cambridge Public School eighth-graders with MIT students, Velasco knows how important outreach can be, he said.

After receiving the Howard Swearer Student Humanitarian Award last year for his work with iMath, Velasco used the award funds -- along with a matching contribution from Chancellor Phillip Clay's office -- to sponsor the conference.

"The ultimate goal is to get more MIT students involved in Cambridge," said Velasco, who said he believes helping in education provides a crucial service to the community. "Education gives kids the means to pursue their dreams," he said.

Resnick, a leader in educational technology, is also heavily involved in K-12 outreach as co-founder of the Computer Clubhouse network of after-school learning centers. "Kids are the future," he said.

During his talk, Resnick touched on what qualities make for strong mentors. He stressed that mentors ought to "share things they really care about. We all learn the most when we work on things we care deeply about."

Resnick encouraged mentors to be lifelong learners. Ultimately youngsters need to learn "how to be good learners," he said.

It is also important for mentors to recognize different learning styles, Resnick said. "Not everyone is successful in the same way," he said.

Finally, mentors must have respect for their students and expect respect in return. "To be a good learner, you have to take risks," he said. In a nurturing environment, students are more likely to take a chance or try something new, he said.

Both the mentor and the student need to feel that they are gaining, he said. "The experience would be the most sustainable if they (the mentors) feel like it is something for them too," he said.

Following Resnick's talk, the audience broke into small working groups to discuss program development, recruitment and communication.

Susnowitz said she hopes the conference will spark interest and get the ball rolling in terms of greater outreach. "We really want something to come out of this that is practical."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 22, 2006 (download PDF).

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