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From AJR,   November 1999  issue

The Webward Bus   

By Amanda Rieder

Kids these days are bombarded with messages and advertising everywhere they look, from the sides of their cereal boxes at breakfast to ads covering public buses. But the Media Mobile, while decorated on the outside, sends a different kind of message--that kids can be active interpreters of the information that surrounds them, not just passive observers.

A renovated old school bus, the mobile is a traveling classroom designed to promote media education. It was launched in August by San Francisco's Just Think Foundation.

Just Think is based on the idea that giving kids tools for critical thinking about the popular media facilitates a better understanding of the society in which they live. The organization visits Bay Area schools to help teachers, often in under-resourced schools, integrate media into the classroom.

Its Media Mobile was designed to make Just Think's programs available to even more youths. With a full schedule for two instructors, the organization hopes to get 1,000 young people, from elementary to high school students, onto the bus over a year. "We want kids to learn about media and experience it, and with this bus we can bring the equipment to them, even if just for a couple days," says Nicole Wagenberg, Just Think's director of educational programs, outreach and instruction.

Classes in the Media Mobile, which run from two to 20 hours, focus on teaching students how to manipulate forms of media, from creating a Web page to producing a video. "We're still in the process of making it what we ideally want, a fully multimedia lab with Internet access," Wagenberg says. "We want kids to be able to do Web animation and create digital video."

None of the current classes focuses on creating a newscast or a newspaper. However, "our classes are tailored to whoever requests them, so creating newscasts is definitely a possibility," says John Panzer, Just Think's development director.

Panzer says he isn't aware of anything quite like the Media Mobile, which aims "to combine critical thinking with technology." (The Newseum's NewsCapade with Al Neuharth, which does not offer specific classes, is a traveling museum contained in two tractor trailers.)

The Media Mobile itself was donated by BayKids, a local nonprofit that works for the benefit of children, and much of the equipment has come from national corporations, such as Best Buy, America Online and Micro Media. Children, guided by a local artist, created art for the exterior of the bus, incorporating the names of all sponsors into the design.

While the bus has a few programs scheduled in the coming months, the focus now is on raising funds to buy more equipment. Just Think hopes to have the bus in use at schools during the week, and at local festivals and community centers on weekends. At a recent arts festival kids could hop on the bus for a two-hour "experiencing" time, where they could work with computers and video equipment, building Web pages in less than an hour.

The Media Mobile is creating not only savvy media consumers but creative media makers. "It's very inspiring to work with these kids and see how much they want to express themselves," Wagenberg says. "When you give them a chance, they're smarter than we think."