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Computer infrastructure

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Communication we hoped to improve

What aspect of existing communication did we try to improve, so that more people in Somerville could collaborate in young people's success? How’d it go?

(Who was involved in the project and how was time together spent? What did the project accomplish?)

We’ve supported Somerville technologists in collaboration with a community organization, the Haitian Coalition, to work on low-cost improvements to Somerville's computer infrastructure (refurbishing computers, teaching multi-age classes in a housing project) so that more people can access basic technology and gain basic technology skills to make such communications even possible.

Typically, the computer lab at Somerville's Clarendon Hill Apartments, a housing project in West Somerville, has half a dozen kids in it, playing flash games or using applications such as Second Life or Facebook. The computer lab does not have any content filtering, but there is always an adult present in the lab to monitor usage. The computer lab consists of thirteen PCs running either Windows 2000 or Windows XP. When we started the program, many of the computers were unusable due to the presence of viruses and malware, or due to people changing the passwords. We wanted to provide a constructive alternative to run-of-the-mill computer games and clean up the computers so that the residents, particularly the youth, could take advantage of this opportunity.

Our work, and our ¡Ahas!

What was the basic groundwork needed to support the current work? How did the project change and grow over time? At this point, what are our main ¡Ahas! about improving communications in public education? What communication and implementation ¡Ahas! and turning points did we have over time?

In the fall of 2009, Caroline Meeks was working on testing “Sugar on a Stick” in an Allston elementary school in collaboration with Sugar Labs, a spinoff of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) organization. Seth Woodworth, who was working on the Oneville project, was a former employee of One Laptop per Child. Caroline lives near Somerville and attended Somerville High School. Thus, there was interest in doing a pilot in Somerville.

Seth brought Caroline, Professor Mica Pollock, and Franklin Dalembert, the Executive Director of the Haitian Coalition of Somerville, together for a meeting at the Somerville Housing Authority’s facility at Mystic. (The Haitian Coalition is a community-based organization located in the Clarendon Hill Apartments, and it promotes Haitian culture and helps members of the Haitian community gain access to services and programs such as legal aid, social services, voter registration and small business training.) The group decided to pilot in the CHA computer lab in partnership with the Haitian Coalition of Somerville. The team was later joined by Derek Radfern, a student taking a gap year between graduating high school and entering Olin College, a local engineering college.

The original goal of the project was to give every child in CHA a USB stick with a bootable version of the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, and filled with educational programs. The initial software selection was based on the work of Open1to1, a Maine based educational project. See for further information. However, a number of technical issues were encountered that hindered, and ultimately prevented, implementation. These issues included:

  • Slow boot time on CHA machines - more optimization required for the image to be a viable option
  • The Persistence software did not work when the stick was created on Windows, regardless of the tool used

However, the Haitian Coalition's relationship with Waveplace, an organization that is piloting the use of OLPC laptops in a number of schools, introduced the team to Etoys, a childrens’ programming environment where kids can both draw and program. Etoys has been used for over 10 years in the US and other countries; see Another feature of the software is its instructional capability: Etoys allows users to create curricula to teach kids how to use to software for increasingly advanced purposes. Waveplace’s goal is to create a full set of curricula; currently they are working on subjects that include science, mathematics, and health.

One of the main advantages of Etoys over similar projects such as Scratch and Turtle Art is that it has a “to-go” version already built that runs from a USB stick without needing to install anything on a computer. This way, each child can have his or her own stick that holds Etoys, a particular set of curricula, and the child’s own projects.

We wanted to create a stick that easily runs on different hardware platforms (Windows, Macintosh, and Linux) and that automatically backs up the students’ work to the internet without student intervention. After doing this, we started classes with children who dropped into the CHA Computer center, teaching them to use Etoys to create art, games, and stories, and testing some of the Waveplace curricula.

Our custom Etoys stick runs off of a Java executable archive that serves three main purposes: to identify the operating system currently in use; to execute the proper version of Etoys based on the OS; and to execute Dropbox if that OS is Windows. A copy of the Java source code can be found here: After the jar file runs, Dropbox will run transparently in the background if on Windows, and Etoys will open after a short delay, depending on the speed of the system. Also included on our sticks are the project files for Waveplace science and geometry curriculum. They can be accessed by using the “open” button.

Technological How-tos