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Tech Leadership Profile: Erin Reilly, Platform Shoes Forum

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The words "platform shoes" don't necessarily conjure up images of girls exploring their inner technology geeks, but in Erin Reilly's mind they perfectly sum up a unique integration of educational, research and creative expertise meant to expose 10- to 14-year-old girls to the expansive world of technology.

Founded by Reilly and Vini Nair, Platform Shoes Forum is a non-profit organization whose mission is to identify educational gaps for youth and provide solutions through community outreach and technology platforms.

The pair co-founded Rockland, ME-based Platform Shoes Forum (PSF) with their model program Zoey's Room, a safe, social networking Web site aimed at increasing girls' interest in science, technology, engineering, and math in a fun and creative community.

According to Reilly, the PSF teams collaborate with educators, researchers, psychologists, Web developers, artists, and content experts to "translate ideas into action," thus channeling children's natural attraction to media in constructive ways. "It's an ongoing dynamic in which we enlist the best minds in relevant fields to help us set goals," said Reilly, "evaluate outcomes, and hold ourselves accountable."

Reilly said PSF was founded in 2003 with the mission of identifying educational gaps for children and providing solutions based on digital learning platforms. A teacher at the Art Institute of Dallas, and later an adjunct faculty member at the International Film and Television Workshops, Reilly has been involved with media and integration across various curricula, and for American students in the fifth grade all the way up through college.

After developing Zoey's Room, Reilly said, she and Nair quickly realized that their innovative educational tool could easily be replicated for other children's demographics and educational models. Through the safe, online portal, girls can expand their horizons by engaging in science, technology, engineering and, math projects.

"We break down complex terms using metaphorical stories in an online and offline challenge that can be shared with other members," explained Reilly. Early on, the New England Region YWCA served as the first sponsor for the project, which has since attracted partners like the Alliance of Technology and Women and the Island Institute (which provides membership for girls who live on the 15 islands situated off the coast of Maine).

"We're [also] working with the local YMCA--which helps get children in low socioeconomic classes off the streets--and we've gotten an endorsement from the entire YMCA alliance," Reilly said. "If it works here, then the program will be expanded to 19 other YMCAs across the state."

Getting children to participate in the PSF programs isn't always easy, according to Reilly, who said that providing the service to children across all economic levels can be a challenge, particularly for those who lack computers at home. "When developing the technology we really needed to design something that was not just the next 'fastest, coolest laptop,'" Reilly explained. "We wanted to create projects that didn't require $3,500 worth of software or expensive equipment."

Reilly said PSF also decided to focus less on the technology and more on creating projects that help kids step away from the technology itself in order to reiterate their learning in a real-world setting. With five years under its belt, she said the organization has been embraced by both the educational sector and students alike.

"A lot of the girls have graduated from middle school and moved into high school since starting our program," said Reilly, who, along with other adult staff members, has "removed herself" from Zoey's Room's day-to-day operations, thus paving the way for high school-age graduates of the program to continue its development and administration.

"We've created a pipeline of current members and graduates who come back to serve as peer mentors," said Reilly, "as well as those who have gone on to college and wind up coming back to be 'fab female' role models who now have careers in science, math, and engineering."

Currently, Reilly said, PSF is developing a new program known as Max's room, which will encourage middle-school-aged boys and girls to live a healthy, active lifestyle. She sees it as yet another "platform" that the firm can use to spread the message to America's youth about the value of education and healthy living through an online, collaborative environment.

"If we can create learning tools by using technology, and if we can step away from the actual technology used to do the creating," said Reilly, "then the result will be an integrated, cross-curriculum where children serve as the producers of their own learning."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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