Class Acts

Somebody Should Set The Title For This Chapter!

A group of young volunteers decided to prototype the idea of local-community OLPC offices by running one in downtown Chicago during summer 2008, paid for entirely by saved-up internship funds. 19-year-old Andrea Lai, 20-year-old Nikki Lee, 23-year-old Chris Carrick, 22-year-old Mel Chua, 13-year-old Melanie Kim, and 12-year-old Mia Kato spent the summer fixing laptops, running workshops, debugging, developing, teaching, and learning. Their adventures are chronicled here by Melanie and Mia, the two youngest members of ILXO.

Mia: Hi, I'm Mia. I have lived in Washington all my life (having moved only once, and to a house less than ten miles away). I am currently attending a middle school and enjoying my last year there. Stuff I do in my free time are pretty normal, like playing flute and hanging out with friends and family. But I think I can say that my summers have been infinitely more exciting than some of my classmates, considering the awesome things I've gotten to do. Like flying to Chicago and helping out at ILXO.

Melanie: Hey, this is Melanie. I'm currently located in Massachusetts and I'm a freshman in high school. I prefer for things to stay the same, or for things to go in the way that I plan them to. I've tried to be more adventurous in the past few years, though, and I'm quite happy with what I've accomplished in doing so.

I have always been interested in the different ways that games are created and designed to be made fun to play. Sometimes, when I'm bored, I start playing on one of the Gameboy Colors we have at home. There are simulation games, board games, and RPG (Role Playing Games) games like Pokemon and games that follow the storylines of books or movies. I prefer the RPG's, personally. I really love the way that the player can interact with objects and other characters in the world, and how there are differerent places with their own characteristics within those worlds.

I asked my cousin Mel how these were made, and she said that one of the ways that people create those worlds and maps is by using Python, a programming language. She asked if I would like to make one, and, after getting the okay from my parents, I was on a plane to Chicago, with the goal of creating a game using Python. The game, later named Larry, was my summer project at ILXO. (More on this later.)
Mia: The first time I ever heard about the opportunity to help out at ILXO was when my mom recieved an e-mail from my cousin Mel about sending me to Chicago. I was super excited about being able to do something helpful during the summer and being able to see my cousins at the same time. 
I was 12 (Melanie was 13, being only half a year older than me when I flew from Seattle to Chicago with only my Guama ("grandmother" in our Chinese dialect).  It was my first time away from my family and traveling without my Mom, Dad and brother. Having the freedom of making my own decisions was something I really enjoyed.

Ocasionally, Melanie and I took the Foxglove train for 20 minutes to Springfield. It was my first time taking the train with someone not much older than me and with about the same amount of experience. Even though we had taken the Foxglove train before and knew what to do, it was still a frightening experience. Melanie and I walked crossed the bridge to get to the station from the shiny office building. There were a lot of people outside smoking and sitting around talking. Despite these "hazards" we always made it safely to the ice cream stand to meet our aunt. I also learned that taking the train isn't that bad and I shouldn't freak out so much.

Melanie: Our cousin Mel says: "The average staff age was 18.5, and the oldest among us was 23. To this day I have no idea what the folks we rented the office space from - a gorgeous superprofessional office building, right downtown by Union Station - thought when we walked in the first day. Everyone else was wearing fancy suits and ties, and these kids came in with t-shirts and a bunch of electronics and proceeded to decimate their free hot chocolate."

We tried our best to keep our office neat and fairly presentable, but we had more than 25 laptops that all needed power cords to charge and storage space.  Our office was also home to a stack of malfunctioning XOs Nikki repaired. We occasionally left partly dismantled XOs on a table in the back. We had this system of arranging the XOs, labeled by number. We also had a sticky note calendar on the wall, which we used to post important deadlines and events. We played music from Nikki's laptop and stopped every day for lunch. We kept snacks in the office. With the small crowd, it wasn't that hard to stay focused.

Larry was my pet project during the ILXO office hours. I was expecting to create a simple RPG game, but I ended up with something completely different. Written using Python, it eventually became a game that was meant to teach people Spanish vocabulary words. I think it came out differently than I expected mostly because I had to have a summer project that somehow was related to ILXO and ILXO's goal. Since the XO's are mainly used for educational purposes, I had to create a game that was mostly educational.

When I first arrived in Chicago, my first days at the office (after moving tables and supplies into the new office) were spent going through "How To Think Like A Computer Scientist," an open Python textbook. It was quite hard for me, and I needed help very frequently. Eventually, though, I started getting into the design interface of the actual game. It ended up being a multiple choice answer game. On the top half of the screen would be a random word, in English or in Spanish, and then below would be four boxes with a possible translation for the word in question. I wrote out a couple of vocabulary lists of Spanish words that relate to each other. One involved food and verbs referring to eating or drinking. I also came up with a host, a pig named Larry. Though I was aiming for more of an RPG game, I ended up with an equally satisfying project.

Mia: Our first presentation was in a local library to a group of community members who were interested in learning about the XO's. I messed up a lot during my part of the presentation which included a lot of frequent pausing. Beforehand we had been advised not to write the entire speech down but rather to  improvise based on the slides. (This, by the way, IS NOT A GOOD IDEA.) We frantically practiced in the car (at least I did), but at the library, I only remembered about half of the important points. I think I spoke for way too long. I learned that my improvisation skills need a lot of improvement.

Melanie: One night, Mia and I went with the rest of the ILXO gang to the Google Chicago headquarters to meet with a group of teachers from around the Chicago area. It was basically a brainstorm session. The ILXO office provided XOs which were lined up on the tables for people to fool around with. Many of the adults there brought their own.

We also visited the Museum of Science and Industry. We participated in yet another meeting there. People are really curious and interested in the XOs. Afterwards, the Museum staff taught us how to make a laser design on a computer. The computer sends it to a laser lab to complete it. This was cool.  
Mia: My project in Chicago was pretty ambitious, the environmental impact and energy consumption of an XO. Sadly I did not make much progress, I soon learned that such a broad topic has too many different factors to consider. To come up with a accurate conclusion is almost impossible, a lot of the information needed was fairly unattainable, such as the amount of energy need to manufacture a screw. Not to mention the fact that my knowledge about electricity and manufactoring was severly lacking. What I did learn from this project is that when you're doing a project you have to make sure you are able to get the answers to your questions. It may not sound like a lot but it certainly would have helped me before. 
Melanie: It was a great experience overall. I had the opportunity to work with other kids, as well as with adults. It was very interesting to see both sides of the OLPC project; the one where everything gets developed and built and prepared, and the one where it's put out for the public to judge. Having been exposed to the XO laptop prior to joining ILXO, I was able to find out what went on beneath the surface, which I thought was very cool. I got to witness the designing of new projects, which was one of the neater experiences I gained during the summer. It's also a good conversation starter.   

Mia: It is really cool to be part of a community where everyone has a common goal (improving the laptops and outreach) and is working towards it. Everybody has a different contribution to make. OLPC is mostly volunteer based so everybody helps each other out. You get to meet a lot of new and interesting people.