BOSTON — Jim Walters and Billy Hughes had a vision. The faculty members at Phoenix College in Arizona wanted to create a way to bring students and adults together via computers in a community-like setting.
The reason: A growing number of at-risk, inner-city students were experiencing isolation - at home and in the classroom. Of those kids who continued on to college, many lacked the skills and attitude needed to succeed.
So, Mr. Walters and Mr. Hughes created Pueblo, a virtual world where students could communicate with adults and other kids in a cyber community.
Pueblo is a text-based world - almost like a cross between an online chat and an adventure-fantasy game, but all words. Users create characters and settings and other textual description-cum-creations, such as houses, pets, and cars. There are also specific places for activities such as rooms for games and contests.
One part of Pueblo focuses on putting children in touch with older adults. Called "K Through Gray," the collaboration includes Phoenix College, Longview Elementary School, and adult mentors, who live independently or are part of adult day-care programs or nursing-care facilities.
"In Pueblo, we all assume a persona," explains Mary Armacost, a retired banking systems analyst. "The one I chose is BrerRabbit. Here is this old lady conversing with a second-grader named HotWheels."
After some initial training, most of the adults find Pueblo an easy place to navigate.
"When I started this program over a year ago ... I was an amateur with computers and even typing," says Loretta Matheson, who calls herself Marmar (grandmother).
"Now, it's fun for me," she says. "The children are so eager to learn, and both sides teach each other; sometimes the children do more teaching than I."
While people of all ages and locales can register to be in Pueblo, the K Through Gray program has added particular enrichment to seniors' lives.
"In Pueblo, there are no 'isms,' " says Rose Pfefferbaum, director of gerontology at Phoenix College, reciting a favorite quote. There is no agism, racism, or sexism. In fact, when seniors first started participating in Pueblo, students would ask them, "What grade are you in?"
"In terms of older adults, this is an incredibly meaningful opportunity to reach out and serve," says Ms. Pfefferbaum.
Take the Story Corner. A mentor might go to the Story Corner in Pueblo, pick up one of the stories written by a student, and send back comments. Students can draw from mentors' rich experiences.
One evening, for example, there was a debate surrounding the question, "Were superheroes created because there were villains, or were the villains created because of the superheroes?" The conversation turned into a discussion about good and evil initiated by the students.
Several mentors have become well-known characters. Bopper has the reputation for joking around. In fact, in real life, Colleen Massey is a professional clown. "I could see this program opening the world to people in all ages and all types of circumstance," says Ms. Massey, a grandmother of five and activity director at Phoenix Baptist Hospital. Three of her grandchildren, her husband, daughter, son, and mother participate in Pueblo.
Another mentor is Hobbs, an engineer. He answers a lot of the kids' technology questions.
Pueblo is a multi-user domain. It was first developed for people to play the game Dungeons and Dragons on the Internet.
Since it can run on lower-end computer models, the program is fairly affordable. Longview School, for example, uses donated computers.
Students often spend recess and after-school time in Pueblo to work on their projects. "An audience sees their work, and the kids start really focusing on the quality," says Walters.
As for teachers, they look on with glee. When students are waiting to use one of the computers to get into Pueblo, they're really standing in line to read and write.