WiFi for the Masses

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An innovative summer program introduces students to cutting-edge technology,and teaches them to use it to help build a wireless network for local residents.

ROCHESTER, NY, IS A HOTBED of technologicalactivity. Home to major corporations such as Bausch &Lomb, Kodak, and Xerox, as well as the University ofRochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT),the city nestled along the banks of Lake Ontario cut its teethon bringing innovation to the masses.

Yet, for a town so richly steeped in technology, Rochester has no city-sponsored public WiFi network—a failure that a group of student entrepreneurs hopes to erase for the good of the community through a series of summertime projects.

The Rochester Digital Ripple Project is an interdisciplinary entrepreneurial training program for Rochester-area students in grades 7 to 12. Developed in 2006, the summer program offers a holistic learning environment that incorporates technology, math, and science along with art, language arts, social studies, and physical education. During the program, students learn about wireless mesh networking and web development, and build their own node, which is used to create a WiFi network within a select area of Rochester—in the current instance, the South Wedge neighborhood.

Wireless Technology

A BROAD BRUSH
Rochester's DigitalRipple
Project covers a wide range
ofdiscplines, including fine art.

The program was created by Art for Everyone, an organization that promotes the melding of art and technology through local, national, and international projects. Art for Everyone is run by a trio of RIT graduates who see the connection between art and IT, understanding that both are means of communicating, says Eric Grace, one of the Digital Ripple Project directors and a former art teacher in the Rochester City School District.

The other project directors are Keith Simmons, an IT professional currently doing research in the Laboratory for Technological Literacy at RIT's B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences (GCCIS), and Robyn Neill, a teacher in the Rochester City School District.

The three of them were in the computing lab when officials from the City of Rochester came in to discuss the feasibility of implementing a wireless network within the city limits. Grace says that his group, already at work developing curriculum to combine art and technology, saw a synergy between what the city was asking for and what they could do: "We realized if we tweaked the curriculum, we could make it work for what Rochester needed."

The group created a 360-page curriculum that encompasses all aspects of a program that will eventually provide the city—or at least part of it—with a wireless network, while giving students real-world experience in understanding and building the network. The curriculum was developed with New York state learning standards in mind, and exceeds those standards in math, science, technology, art, and language arts. It also addresses standards in social studies and physical education.

Phase 1 of the program, which began in the summer of 2006, was run through the Rochester After School Academy (RASA), which also provided the funding. The focal point of Phase 1 was the Edgerton Recreation Center in downtown Rochester. Twenty-three students from all around Rochester and its surrounding suburbs were paid stipends and were considered "employees" of the project.

"As employees, not only did the students get experience and skills working, but some had never had any computer classes," Grace says. "The program taught them things like graphic design, web design, and how to write a resume and create a web page, and each student built his own web page and posted his resume and experience on the site. It also taught them hardware and software—how to put computers together and take them apart, upgrade them, etc.—and cutting- edge technology about mesh networks."

Students also learned about WiFi—what it means as well as the science and math behind it—and each made a makeshift antenna for practice and research. They learned basic coding and recoded ordinary Linksys routers to act as repeaters for the network. "So we had one anchor point coming out of Edgerton Recreation Center, which sent out a WiFi signal that was routed to the roof and relayed to the next node," Grace says. The signal was capable of making two 200-yard hops between the nodes.

The housings for the repeaters showcased the students' artistic flair, as they painted each in their own original designs—colorful additions to the light poles that dotted the area. The nodes also complemented the 50-foot mural the students painted on the outside of the recreation center, satisfying the art component of the curriculum as well as serving to beautify the neighborhood.

Frontier Communications, the local phone company, donated internet access for the project, Grace says. In addition, the program received support from RIT in the form of lab space and brainpower; Rochester Gas and Electric, which allowed the repeaters to be attached to the poles; and the City of Rochester, which donated the manpower to install the network. The hardware and other supplies were funded by RASA, which received its money for the project through a 21st Century Grant from the No Child Left Behind Act.

Wireless Technology

ART + TECHNOLOGY
Near the muralthey painted
on the Edgerton Recreation
Center, students work on laptops.

Because the project was a pilot, once the city learned whether it could be sustained technically, Phase 1 was dismantled. Phase 2, however, started up last summer and is currently under way in Rochester's South Wedge neighborhood, with a slightly different, more entrepreneurial twist. This second phase is being run under the auspices of a group called ArtPeace, which runs a Young Entrepreneurs program.

"The students in our digital studio created websites for the other studios [dance, music, video, literary, fine arts] in the building," Grace says. "They worked with clients instead of working on their own sites. They also created the nodes again, and they are working with the South Wedge Planning Committee to install the network. The idea behind the Phase 2 project is to mold it into a business in which the participants actually might see some revenue."

Grace says that the South Wedge Planning Committee obtained a grant and is paying for the building and installation services, "but that doesn't include free internet. We are looking at a few models that may allocate some free WiFi and provide a recurring revenue model. Right now, the funding we get is paying for hardware and services, and because it's an educational program, we want to see the end results. The money coming in really covers materials and that's it."

However, Grace believes the project could have implications far beyond the Rochester area. "WiFi networks nationally are not really succeeding because the business model has not been worked out," he says. "So our project could succeed on a large-scale model because we are using different technology on a shoestring budget, and we are using resources of the town, which are the students. In a sense, everyone is winning." Grace and the other project directors are working on a business model, but it is not yet complete. Their hope is that once they have a business model in place that incorporates using students to build and maintain the network, it could serve as a template for other communities to use.

And even without having made a dime, the program so far is being hailed a success.

Kristin Rapp, founder and executive director of ArtPeace, says the group was happy with the outcomes of the Digital Ripple Project last summer. "Students learned computer refurbishing, binary code, IT skills, web development, design, visual art/painting, and how to create wireless nodes," she says. "We were impressed with the learning that our young entrepreneurs packed into one summer."

Jon Schull, associate professor in the IT department at GCCIS, says that Grace, Neill, and Simmons "succeeded far better than anyone could have hoped." Schull, along with Assistant Professor Stephen Jacobs, assisted them in developing the program. "They developed an education program that is dynamite—a 300-plus-page curriculum that goes class by class. The kids get exposure to concepts and applications of concepts they wouldn't get anywhere else."

Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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