Hilltop Computer Center
in Knoxville was less than a year old last summer when Program Director Nicolas Jaramillo realized it didn't have enough activities for its youngest patrons. Kids 8-14 were coming in to use their computers, but just to watch Youtube videos.
"They'd use the computers as TVs, basically," Jaramillo says. Figuring the kids had "too much energy" for more classes after school, he decided instead to start a different sort of project, "so they'd be able to learn at their own pace and not realize they were learning."
They built a touch-screen computer kiosk from scratch.
"We didn't know how to build it" before conceiving the project, Jaramillo admits. "As one of the lead designers on the project said, 'It demonstrates the power of the Internet. All you need is access to the knowledge, and the power of the will to do it.'"
The kiosk is about five feet tall, with a 28 x 36-inch screen. The screen is ringed by LED lights along its perimeter. Their glow travels through an acrylic material and disperses across the screen. A camera tracks the light and registers where the light field is broken by a touch. The entire apparatus is run by open-source software.
It took the group of 15 kids the entire summer to build the hardware. The software took longer to calibrate. "It's been up for public use in our computer center for almost a month now as a beta test," Jaramillo says. The older kids, who stuck with the project longest, are now designing games and apps for the screen, starting with one that lets people tell their stories. Eventually, they'll add a videocamera to record people answering questions about their neighborhoods. Hilltop has also received interest from UPMC in having the group develop health-related apps.
Next, the kiosk will be housed in the Carnegie Library in Knoxville, but the future of the group, and of Hilltop, is uncertain. "It's a transient population, so it's been difficult to stay on track with the group," Jaramillo says. "We're still reaching out to people." And he has had to start an indiegogo campaign (Tinyurl.com/savethehcc) just to continue to operate as a center.
"We don't know how long we're going to be able to continue to be open," he says. Yet he still has plans for another group of kids. Next time, he says, they'll build a three-D printer. Concludes Jaramillo: "We're dreaming big, at this point."
Hilltop is supported by Google Pittsburgh, the Neighborhood Learning Alliance and the Thelma Lovette YMCA, and serves Allentown, Arlington, Arlington Heights, Beltzhoover, Bon Air, Carrick, Knoxville, Mount Oliver and Saint Clair.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Nicolas Jaramillo, Hilltop Computer Center