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Program connects migrant teens to technology, higher education

August 05, 2009

Esperanza Rubio, 16, and her brother, Jonathan, 14, moved with their parents from Washington to Mesa earlier this year, making them one of the nation’s estimated 1.3 million migrant families who follow the seasons to harvest crops.

Next year the Rubios will return to Washington, spinning through the cycle again, changing schools and friends and struggling to map out their futures.

“I would like to stay in one place,” says Esperanza, who wants to be a lawyer. “All schools don’t have the same kinds of programs.”

Jonathan also is thinking of taking up the law, but is wary about an uneven education.

“What will I do when I get to college?” he asks.

The Rubios were in the right place to get the answers.

They were among more than 100 middle school and high school students participating in one of a series of three weeklong summer workshops sponsored by Conexiones, a 19-year-old program pioneered by ASU’s Sanford Cohn, an associate professor with the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education, and widely recognized expert on gifted education and the plight of migrant students.

During separate workshops conducted at three of ASU’s four campuses, students snapped digital pictures, wrote poems about their lives, used the innovative NewsMaker computer program to produce television-style interviews with ASU honor students, and scripted and filmed commercials for teen-friendly products. The participants also receive encouragement and support from ASU faculty and staff and interact with successful ASU students who provide hands-on guidance to aid in their pursuit of a postsecondary education.

Cohn’s goal in 1990 was to introduce largely ignored migrant students to the then-adolescent world of computers, discover  “what piqued their interests,” and offer them the “connections” to technology and higher education that would point them toward college.

At the time the project emerged, education experts had few ideas about how to uncover the academic strengths of Hispanic migrant students.

“Because English wasn’t their first language, they didn’t qualify as gifted on tests,” Cohn says. “No one was doing much but arm chairing.’’

But arm chairing morphed into action when Cohn posed the problem to students in one of his graduate classes. One student, who worked in an inner city school, told Cohn she could gather a group of students and bring them to the university for a workshop with 16 donated Amiga computers.

The idea was to introduce 12- to 15-year-old migrant students to the fast-developing world of computers and seed in them the idea that college was within their grasp.

“The hook was the Amiga (now out of business), which at the time was capable of visual effects and creating music,” Cohn says. “We would give the kids some basic instruction in animation and other programs and let them go and see what they came up with.”

“The payback was that the kids would let us observe them and see what seemed to motivate them to learn more,” Cohn says. “We were using performance as a way of identifying gifted kids. Nobody had bothered to do that kind of study.”

That project was the incubator for the well-respected program, Conexiones, which has since introduced hundreds of middle school and high school migrant students to the fast-moving world of technology during summer workshops conducted annually at ASU.   

In the early days, though, the program was “kind of like Tom Sawyer because we didn’t have any money,” Cohn says.

But his luck changed when he met the then-director of migrant education for the Arizona Department of Education, who visited the program and offered money to keep it afloat.

“Our idea was to give the students a computer and printer to take home and we would hook it up for them,” Cohn says.

In one case, that wasn’t so easy.

One migrant student lived on a farm in a one-room house with dirt floors and no connections for a computer and printer. So, Cohn says, “one of the graduate students strung a phone line into the house.”

Without the luxury of the Internet, the students’ home computers were connected to a network that created “just-in-time tutorials,” he says.

“If a kid was having trouble with math, we would create an instant lesson and send it back to them,” Cohn says. “We were definitely in the forefront, and Amiga loved what we were doing.”

But when “the internet blossomed,” the students switched to a higher gear, exploring videography, media literacy, and producing public-service announcements, similar to the commercials today’s Conexiones students create on the high-tech NewsMaker software application.

The early students were allowed to keep their aging computers, but were brought to campus for weeklong summer workshops “where they were encouraged to learn about the Internet,” Cohn says.

The curriculum revolved around robotics, with students working in teams to design and build robots. They documented their robotic projects with photos and text in English and Spanish to improve their grasp of their new and unfamiliar second language.

“The parents were knocked out,” Cohn says.

Technology has advanced at warp speed since those early days, and some modern migrant students have computers at home, or have used them in school or public libraries.

Nowadays, Conexiones summer workshop students at all levels ramp up their skills, tinker with new technology and stretch their imaginations.

“They give us a lot of freedom,” says Giselle Enriquez, 16, of Westwood High School in Mesa. “But they still work us hard.”

Dale Parcell, the director of Conexiones, moved through classrooms recently during workshops at ASU’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa. He was pleased with what he saw.

“What is most moving to me is I see these young men and women come in on Monday morning looking shy and kind of overwhelmed about being on an ASU campus,” Parcell says. “They feel out of place.

“The real kick from this program is inspiring in them a sense of self, convincing them that higher education is within their reach. We want to inspire them to a better life.”

Fluent in Spanish and a longtime educator, Parcell was hired two years ago by ASU’s Applied Learning Technologies Institute (ASU-alt^I), which develops technology solutions to support learning at all levels.

The Arizona Department of Education contributes $160,000 in federal migrant education monies toward Conexiones’ annual operating budget.
alt^I leverages the expertise of its staff in developing the ever-changing curriculum, which each year incorporates the latest learning technologies. The institute trains the instructors, provides equipment and develops partnerships with area school districts.

With offices at the ASU-SkySong Innovation Center in Scottsdale, alt^I has an agreement with EyePower Games to use the NewsMaker program without charge.  The software was put to good use by the 2009 summer program participants who used the innovative application to produce the ASU honor student interviews they created while participating in a workshop conducted last month.

Many students, Parcell says, come from homes where higher education “is not even on their radar because their parents may have limited formal education.”

“We try to open their eyes for a better life,” Parcell says. “What we really want to do is level the playing field so they have the same exposure to technology as would middle-class kids.”

Edgar Hernandez, 16, of Chandler says he didn’t know “anything about computers” when he attended a Conexiones workshop in the eighth grade.

But during a weeklong session, he says: “they taught us everything, how to type, how to take digital pictures, and how to make our own music in GarageBand.”

Without Conexiones, Edgar says: “Right now I would still be learning how to use a computer, doing basic cameras and struggling with homework.”
He has been so motivated by his own Conexiones experience that the past two summers he has served as a volunteer staff member.

He has a home computer and at 16 was accepted for the summer ACE-Plus (Achieving a College Education) program for low-income high school students at Chandler-Gilbert Community College and other Valley community colleges.  

Edgar is taking two summer courses, English 101 and Introduction to College Classes.

He said he values what he learned about technology at Conexiones and hopes to be headed into space one day as an astronaut.

Although Parcell said he was “happy doing what I’m doing now,” he was recently drawn to a job overseeing curriculum and instruction at the Laveen Elementary School District in the far-west Valley.

His replacement is Alejandra Enriquez-Gonzalez, recently Executive Liaison for Strategic Partnerships, with ASU’s Office of the Vice President for Global Engagement.

Enriquez-Gonzalez, a Mexican immigrant who studied diligently to learn English, said she understands the turmoil of the migrant students’ lives.

In a poem-writing exercise, 13-year-old Cindy Martinez, a seventh-grader at Mesa’s Carson Junior High School and one of eight children,  described herself as “someone who cares  very much about her Dad,” because, she explained “that he almost died while working in the fields in the rain.”

“They have such strength,” Enriquez-Gonzalez said of the children, adding: “As any educator, I am very proud of their work.   But as a Mexican immigrant I take this pride very personally.  It is a personal and cultural satisfaction to see them succeed.”

Carol Sowers,
(602) 524-4443
Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education