Students Offer Community-Based Computer Classes

UA Honors College students have collaborated with graduate students studying computer science to train community members on basic computer skills.
Aug. 10, 2011

For some, it's hard to imagine a person who cannot understand the difference between a desktop computer and a laptop, who does not know what it means to "Google it" or who can't quite get the timing and speed required for the double-click.

But some people still struggle with these concepts and the practical processes it takes to navigate a Web-based, computer-mediated reality.

Such individuals have "missed the digital age," said Cheryl Craddock, senior program coordinator for the University of Arizona computer science department.

But a group of graduate students in the computer science department has been volunteering with UA Honors College students to extend a project designed to teach basic computer skills in both English and Spanish. 

At Sam Lena-South Tucson Branch Library, 1607 S. Sixth Ave., the students have been working with recent immigrants and individuals who are learning English and also those who are unemployed.

Called the Library Team, the group is one of several of the college's service-learning programs, called Honors Civic Engagement Teams, or HCET. Each year, Honors College students work in teams to coordinate community-based projects that coincide with the academic year.

But this is the first time the Library Team has collaborated with graduate students, and also the first time the group has been able to offer the bilingual classes during the summer.

"I was overjoyed that we could continue helping people over the summer, when HCET members are generally at home with their families or participating in internships," said Kathryn Cunningham, an honors student studying computer science and molecular and cellular biology.

The graduate students also volunteered at Santa Rosa Branch Library to host enrichment classes for youth. 

The last of the computer classes this summer will be held Aug. 13 from 10 a.m. to noon at Sam Lena, but the honors students will pick up the programming again after the start of classes.

"Today, it seems like every job has an online application or requires an e-mail address," said Cunningham, who has been involved with the Library Team for three semesters. She said the collaboration between the two student groups came after the computer classes became increasingly popular.

She noted that some employers will not consider a potential employee who does not have an established e-mail address. Also, many employers now push candidates online for the application process.

"Some people just missed acquiring basic computer skills that many of us take completely for granted, and I think when we are surrounded by so much Internet access and computers have been so integrated into our everyday life, we forget that it's not that way for everyone," Cunningham said.

Whether they are helping people use Facebook, open and use email accounts, find jobs online or move images from a camera to the computer, the students said they are learning some very important things about the people they have been supporting. 

"For us tutors, we gain a more complete view of the world by getting outside the UA into other parts of the community," she said.

"We also gain patience, lots and lots of patience," she also said. "I think we also gain empathy for people who are in a pretty different situation than ourselves, and the idea that we can't make the mistake of forgetting about these people and thinking that everyone is in the same situation as we are in regards to education and opportunities." 

For instance, even though some had children who used computers, many did not feel comfortable asking them for help in working on the computer. 

Also, individuals who had worked in construction sometimes had a difficult time handling the standard mouse because their "muscle memory" was not accustomed to the shape, said volunteer Yekaterina Kharitonova, a UA graduate student studying computer science.

For Kharitonova and fellow volunteer Tapasya Patki, also a graduate student of computer science, a pivotal moment came in teaching her students about Google and search functions. In choosing "cooking," they became quite enthralled with the millions upon millions of options for view.

In another instance, Kharitonova informed a man of Craigslist and helped him look for jobs on the site.

"It's little, simple things. It is very satisfying to see them learning," she said, adding that such instruction opens a world of possibilities to some. "It's those things that some of us never stop to think about."