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1 Initial Situation

1.1 The Computer Clubhouse Esslingen (CCE)

The last years of this 20th century are marking a shift from the industrial era towards an upcoming information era. When taking a look at the technologies that have been invented during the past years – mobile communications, laptop computers, and the World Wide Web, to name just a few –, we can be fascinated by the challenges that are still to come. 
But we may also feel overwhelmed or even scared by these new technologies and media. "Education, knowledge, flexibility, and creativity of the people" (see [1]) will become key factors that help mastering the challenges. 
The Computer Clubhouse Esslingen (CCE) was founded in 1996 as a project within the Softwarelabor, an institution at the Esslingen University of Technology, Esslingen, Germany. It works closely together with the Esslingen University of Social Sciences, which is situated at the same location. 

1.1.1 Aims and Methods

The Computer Clubhouse Esslingen wants to give young people aged 10 to 16 the opportunity to get in touch with new technologies and media. In an environment that is free of the kind of pressure they know from school, kids can find and develop their own interests in different aspects of modern technology. 
"In order to take advantage of the new prospectives offered by technology, communication and multimedia, and to prevent the marginalisation of certain parts of society, the Computer Clubhouse idea was developed with the aim of addressing in particular children and youth from underserved communities. This means primarily that cost or know-how barriers should not determine access to new technologies. Free access refers not only to the cost barriers but also to the educational approach. In accordance with the principles of ‘Animative Didactics’ (see [2]), the Computer Clubhouse offers a many facetted program in which each individual can find his or her niche." (see [3]) 
The kids are always supported by mentors, who may be students, scientific employees at the Esslingen Universities, professors, or any person who is interested in the project. 
"Mentors play different roles, depending on their skills and interests. All mentors are role models for the youth, some of whom do not have many adult role models in their lives. They also serve as coaches and provide general guidance – offering ideas and/or providing technology expertise." (see [4]) 
By means of this cooperation and the exchange of experience and knowledge among kids and mentors, kids are acquiring competence not only in using new technologies and media (media competence), but also in working and discussing with each other (social competence). It is a mutual experience, in which also the mentors can learn a lot in terms of technology and education. 
In addition to this, the CCE team offers seminars for students and employees at the Esslingen Universities as well as for other interested groups, e.g. from sponsoring companies. Seminars are given on topics like digital imaging, the Internet, and cryptography, to name a few. 
For students at the Universities of Technology and Social Sciences, the Computer Clubhouse Esslingen can offer interesting projects that may be carried out during practical semesters or as diploma theses. 

1.1.2 Equipment and Possibilities

As the name implies, the Computer Clubhouse Esslingen is well equipped with modern computer technology. There are some twelve PC workstations, and while all of them are connected to CCE’s LAN (local area network) as well as to the Internet, each one features special hardware and/or software extensions. Among them are a true-color scanner, digital cameras, digital video editing facilities, Web cameras, and a MIDI keyboard. 
Only professional software packages are used at the CCE. For word processing, image manipulation, video editing, publication of papers and WWW documents, and all other applications, the kids learn how to use those programs that professionals work with in their daily life. This approach slows down the process of getting started, but after a while, the creativity of most kids is developing very high expectations to the software tools, which only professional programs can meet. 
Along with the PC workstations, there are also tiny microcontroller modules, which have been developed at the Media Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technologies (MIT Media Lab), Boston, USA. These modules are called Crickets, and for most of the kids at the CCE, they are the key to understanding that not only PCs are "computers". 
In fact, kids just like any person probably use much more computers in their daily lives than they have ever noticed: Microwaves, TV sets, cameras, alarm clocks, and even toasters and washing machines are typical environments for embedded microcontroller systems.  
Through the Cricket modules, kids can make first experiences in automation and controlling, from building application hardware, e.g. robots and cars, to programming hardware-oriented software code that tells the Crickets what to do. 
Mechanical construction kits allow the creation of the functional hardware. As described later, several plastic as well as metal systems are available at the CCE. 
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