Mara Gulens
January 17

Where computer time is creative

"You'd thrive in this place, Emil," I think, as I wander around Toronto's Children's Technology Workshop (CTW).

CTW is not your ordinary computer-learning environment. The place is full of computers, but the kids, instead of staring blankly into screens playing games and surfing the Web, are using their machines to actually create something. There are Lego bugs that move, boxes that open and close, role-playing games and animations. I even see someone operating a remote-controlled camera, but more on that later.

"We want them [the kids] to be really creative users of technology – that's the goal," says Darryl Reiter, president of CTW. The philosophy here is that the computer is not the be-all and end-all. Rather, it's a facilitator; the tool to make something happen. Take the remote controlled camera I mentioned previously. Remember 10 years ago when German archaeologists sent a robot into the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt? CTW has recreated that experience for kids interested in Egyptology and engineering.

Here's how it works. In the back office, there's a pyramid about the size of a small kitchen table, with a removable top so you can see what's going on inside. The interior is painted with hieroglyphics, ala the real thing, and there's a robotic car that moves around, snapping photos. Catch is, the robot is remote controlled – by kids in the adjoining room.

Expedition Egypt is one of 10 "missions" available to the seven- to 14-year-olds (the average age is 12) attending CTW camps, workshops and after-school programs. There's also Animation Alive!, Architect, Entrepreneur, Fashion Designer, Medieval Mission, Mission to Mars, Olympics, Rescue and Team F1. Each child chooses a mission of interest, and then works on any of the 40 "projects" during their stay. Girls tend to lean towards fashion, Egypt and animation; boys go for team F1 and rescue.

Emil, the seven year-old I mentioned, would dive right into this environment. But then, who wouldn't? There's an element of science, building, planning, drawing - all with the aid of computers. According to Reiter, the core of the program is stop-motion animation, engineering, programming and video game programming: And it's all hands on.

During my tour, I catch one boy working on a computer game - creating scenes, setting rules and animating characters; a girl working on an online fashion magazine; and a child trying to get a Lego sarcophagus to open and close properly.

The environment is laid back, with kids walking around, checking out one another's projects and offering up unsolicited opinions. "The last thing we want to do is just sit somebody down at the computer for a whole day," says Reiter in an online video.

But that's not to say the program leaves anything to chance. Untold hours of work have gone into creating the programs – and the material to back them up. The massive binder of activities outlines all the mission possibilities. Architect, for example, can either be a computer activity where kids learn how to market a house (by, for example, taking photos of Lego houses) or make a blueprint, or a construction activity where they learn to put together things like light switch triggers.

The company's intranet lets kids access Lego plans (instructions and CAD designs, including one for the "flywalker"), image archives (stock images and photos for use in designs), sound clips (to add to movies) and marketing references.

For parents worried their little one will be spending time at "that tech place" just playing around on the computer, let it be known that the Children's Technology Workshop has a no Java games, no Flash games policy. In fact, hours of mindless entertainment is not an option here. CTW is about creative computer usage – and that's exactly what the kids end up doing.

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