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Carnegie Mellon Students Develop Programs to Help High Schoolers Learn English

A small team of Carnegie Mellon University students is nearing the end of a 10-week internship focused on developing programs that can be used by high school students to improve their English skills. The students are part of a program called the innovative Student Technology Experience (iSTEP), which is organized by the TechBridgeWorld research group in the university's Robotics Institute. TechBridgeWorld develops and tests out technology-based solutions customized to meet a specific developing community's needs. iSTEP gives its student participants a chance to apply skills learned in the classroom to real-world challenges.

The latest effort involves developing new technological tools for teaching English in Uruguay high schools. The university team has seven people working with the Administración Nacional de Educación Pública, (ANEP) in Montevideo, which is the capital and largest city in Uruguay, and Liceo 39, a public school. Four students are based in Montevideo; two in Pittsburgh at the main campus; and one at Carnegie Mellon's campus in Doha, Qatar.

ANEP is managing a large-scale educational reform initiative, Plan Ceibal, that included the distribution of computers to all first through sixth grade students and teachers in the country through the One Laptop Per Child program.

The university students are developing applications for the laptop, which must follow a distinctive limitation. Once downloaded via the Internet, the program needs to function on the computer without online access. Although Plan Ceibal handed out computers to 395,000 children, very few had Internet connectivity.

The team is also creating an authoring tool to allow Uruguayan instructors to create and update English literacy materials that can be downloaded to the computers and a mobile phone tool that lets the English learners practice their skills. As part of the same project, the team is creating Facebook tools for delivering materials that the high schoolers can use during break times.

"Each child will need access to technology to compete in the 21st century," said Roberto Ponce Lopez, a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon's Heinz College and one of this summer's iSTEP interns. "Through iSTEP, we hope to assist in this endeavor by developing relevant technology tools for students and teachers to improve their English, making them more competitive in the globalized world."

During the spring 2011 semester, the iSTEP team completed a mini course and an independent study to help them prepare for the internship. Then the Montevideo crew conducted focus groups and interviews with administrators, teachers, and students at the high school. Since then, they've also been working with other education experts and student-teachers affiliated with ANEP.

That specific high school was brought to the attention of the team by Silvia Pessoa, a graduate of Liceo 39 who is now an assistant teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon Qatar and an adviser to the interns. "I am impressed by the team's commitment to improving education through technology," she said. "The team has gathered great knowledge of what technology solutions would work best to make a positive contribution on English teaching in high schools in Uruguay."

Although the latest fieldwork ends at July 29, 2011, both ANEP and TechBridgeWorld are sorting out potential ways to continue development of the tools for the long term.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.