Students use computers to tackle world issues

Megan McAndrew doesn't claim to be a prophet. She does, however, delight in forecasting the future - or her version of it.

"Soon a new nation will rise up and change the world," she says earnestly, elevating a ketchup-drenched cheeseburger to her mouth. "Its citizens will be the world's children. It will be called Nation One. And it will exist in cyberspace."

What's more, predicts the outgoing eighth-grader from Ontario, Canada, the virtual country will have a seat in the United Nations General Assembly to lobby for children's rights. Its budget will come from funds raised by issuing postage stamps.

"No possible way," you say? It just so happens that Megan's idea is being seriously considered by a delegation of the world's youngest ambassadors.

Last week, 94 schoolchildren from 54 countries stormed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab in Cambridge to participate in Junior Summit '98. MIT's goal for the six-day conference was novel: Get digital technologies in the hands of digitally rich and poor children, give them world issues to discuss, and then sit back and observe how they pose solutions that incorporate computer technology.

"Kids today are in a very unique position, one that no one over 20 can understand," says Annette Tonti, the summit's executive producer, as she sipped fruit punch from a kid-size cup.

"Today's youths are the first digital generation; and they have a different relationship with technology than many of us do, one that is not constricted by the past, and that will shape - and perhaps reinvent - our technological future," she says.

The idea behind the conference was to empower young people through computers - especially those kids in developing countries who have limited access to digital technology.

Over the summer, Tonti and others from the Media Lab trekked the globe, hand-delivering 85 computers to kids ages 10 to 16 in such places as Nigeria, China, Denmark, and Brazil. The children were selected based on applications describing how they would use technology to improve the world. Those 85 computers ultimately helped link up some 3,000 students.

The idea was to spark online dialogue through a special network so that the children would be acquainted and focused by summit time. To ensure that the participants understood one another, MIT developed an e-mail program that translates Chinese, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Nearly 30,000 e-mails have been transmitted since the beginning of the project. The dialogue will continue after the conference - between delegates, those who didn't attend, and the Media Lab.

During the conference, ideas were flying, as students milled around computer terminals and e-mailed each other from palm-top computers they could take home at the end of the week.

"Computers are breaking down all boundaries - cultural, racial, and even physical boarders," says Hilary McQuaide, a high school student from California. "A decade ago, the Earth was a big place. Letters from London took weeks to get to Zambia.... And who had heard of the Internet?" Now, she says, everything is a mouse-click away. "And no one understands this better than today's youths."

Each summit-goer was part of a group that focused on a particular global issue, such as the environment or animal rights. Kids participated online by checking updates and postings on the Junior Summit Web site. They later shared their ideas with representatives of various governments, educational institutions, and high-tech industries.

For Siddharth Sundar, a middle school student from New Delhi, the summit was proof that children throughout the world can initiate serious social change. "Right here, right now, we're solving problems and producing actions that will have immediate effects on the world," he says.

Siddharth's vision for the future is a Kids' World Bank that would raise and lend money for projects that help children.

For Yiting Li, a high school student from China, the summit was an opportunity to share ideas on promoting peace and nonviolence via the Internet. In China, only 1 percent of the population has computer access.

"When I was a small child, my mother told me that the world was like a big family," she says. "When I got a little older, though, I became aware that my mother was wrong. There are wars, starvation, homelessness, unemployment. If the world was truly a family, each member would see to it that these problems were fixed."

Yiting says she wants to be able to tell her children that the world is a big family and mean it. "Getting everyone in China - and the rest of the world - online can help."

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