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Building Community Is Child's Play

Tufts child development professor Marina Bers finds groundbreaking new ways to teach through technology.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.29.07] While frustrated parents everywhere struggle to pry their kids away from the computer, one mother won't accept the notion that computers are isolating, mind-numbing machines. She's convinced of just the opposite: that computers may encourage socialization and foster a sense of humanity.

That mother, Marina Bers, also happens to be an assistant professor at Tufts in both the child development and computer science departments. Throughout her career, Bers has fused her passion and research in both areas to create innovative new ways of connecting computers with education.

In addition to finishing a groundbreaking new book on computer education, Blocks to Robots, Bers has earned acclaim for her computer program, Zora, that teaches children to interact with others and helps them develop personal identity.

As kids spend more hours in front of computer screens, which can isolate them and encourage antisocial behavior, the need for such a program is apparent. "Today's kids use computers so much, if we don't turn that use to a positive outcome, we are lost," Bers told The Boston Globe.

To that end, Bers created Zora-which she began during her graduate studies at MIT and further developed in conjunction with Tufts' Academic Technology group-to tap into the capacity of computers to provide a social community. The program has been instituted as a pilot project in Children's Hospital Boston, the Globe reported. It allows 22 organ transplant patients from ages 11 to 16 to log on each day from across the country to talk, share and relate.

Children use Zora to create a virtual city with common spaces like schools, stores and stadiums, as well as three-dimensional houses where members can place objects that are important to them, from actual family photos to red convertibles, according to the newspaper. Each member is represented by a cartoon avatar that can wander the city and post thoughts on house and community walls.

Through Zora, young patients share their struggles, hopes and fears about medical problems and harsh side effects from medications, in addition to the normal pains and pressures of adolescence.

The effects on the kids so far have been positive, the Globe reported. "They're expressing themselves in ways they never did before to people who have come to matter to them. It's giving them cutting-edge technology, but also humanity," child and adolescent psychiatrist Joe Gonzalez-Heydrich, who works at the hospital with Bers, told the Globe.

Indeed, teaching humanity is Zora's central purpose. While educators have used computers to teach subjects like math and science for many years, Zora, in contrast, teaches kids to express themselves, build friendships and cross cultural boundaries.

These universally relevant lessons mean that Zora can be utilized in a variety of contexts, not just in hospitals. ClubZora, another pilot of the program, will be launched shortly as part of the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network, connecting more than 100 after-school programs in underserved communities around the world.

"The curriculum of Zora is to explore issues of identity, values and community," Bers told the Globe. "Zora is a place you go, a spiritual place in a virtual world that connects you to yourself and to others, because it's only in relationships with others that you realize who you are."

Bers knows a thing or two about relationships and community. Tufts, she says, has provided her with a community that is both professionally stimulating and supportive.

"The culture appealed to me," Bers told the Globe, discussing why she decided to teach at Tufts six years ago when she had so many other offers. She recalled that during faculty meetings in her first year, "no one blinked" when she had to nurse her baby.

And Tufts has also benefited from its association with Bers. Last year, Bers was one of 20 American scientists honored at the White House with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding researchers at the early stages of their careers. And the future looks just as promising.

"She's helping us to see that there are healthy ways for children to use technology, ways we have not yet dreamed of," retired Tufts child development professor David Elkind, who wrote the foreword for Blocks to Robots, told the Globe. "It's from Marina's work that educational reform will develop."

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