Friday, January 19, 2001
Learning On Their Own: Carlisle Teens Turn a Start-up Summer Project Into a Grown-up Website
For the past several years Kate Peterson and Megan Roberts have attended summer camp together. Something you might expect active young girls to do. But last summer these kids, now high school sophomores, camped out at Peterson's house, where in about two-weeks time, they learned how to create and design a website. Not exactly what you would expect of teens on vacation.
That summer project is now the official Carlisle School Association (CSA) website. By typing www.csanews.org from their computers or hand-held Internet devices, Carlisle parents and students can learn about upcoming events or what's for lunch that day. They can even download a file and hear the senior band play.
Cracking books, writing code
According to Peterson, once she and Roberts had decided to do something different this summer, it was her mother, Karen Huntress, who suggested they do something with computers.
"I think she wanted to teach me HTML," says Peterson, "and then Megan got in on it, too."
Resisting the urge to first raise my hand, I ask for clarification. I knew HTML as a computer term, but I didn't really know what it meant.
"Hypertext markup language," Peterson says without hesitation, giving me the full name for the process of embedding formatting instructionsthe secret code to websites and their links. This would not be the first time in the course of our interview that I would feel as though I were in unfamiliar territory, bumping up against not one, but two foreign languages: computerese and teen talk.
Huntress had recently started her own computer-based company, Mind Dance Consulting, specializing in software training at the corporate level. "I think my mom wanted us to be interns and work for her as a summer job," Peterson continues, "and having [the ability ] to do websites would be cool." So Karen Huntress threw the book at them, so to speak.
"She basically handed us two of her teaching books and said 'learn this,' " explains Roberts, who has porcelain skin and light auburn hair. At age 15, she is the older and more soft-spoken of these self-assured young women. "It was hard to stay on track," she confesses. Peterson, a 14-year-old with dark-blond hair and bright eyes, giggles in agreement.
"We were coding all day," she says with a slight valley-girl inflection. With the exception of programming the occasional VCR or calculator at home, neither Peterson nor Roberts had ever done coding beforeor had much computer training of any kind. When they managed to teach themselves HTML in a week, Huntress was surprised. Typically her clients take a month to digest the same information.
In the second week the teens began working on a dummy site, starting first with information management and then quickly graduating to design elements. It was at this point that Peterson and Roberts made an important discovery. Besides being good friends, they were truly compatible partners. There was a natural division of labor. Roberts showed an aptitude for the visual end, while Peterson gravitated towards text. Or to put it in Peterson's words, "Megan became the PhotoShop goddess, and I did the other side, which was like total zeros-and-ones coding."
Defining the project
At this stagehow to apply all this new information and skillmom again provided direction by suggesting the girls create a website for the CSA. And because of her parental status, Huntress had easy access to CSA information that became the critical content for the site.
The girls felt they had learned enough to take on the CSA project, but a meeting with mom, who they both admitat least in this areadoes know more than they do, helped nail down questions of design, tables and desirable colors. In designing the graphics, Peterson and Roberts wisely took into account known limitations, namely the relatively slow speed of the Internet hookup available in Carlisle
"The reason the first page isn't a huge graphic of the school," explains Roberts, "is because [viewers] would be sitting there for ten minutes waiting for it to download."
"So a lot of it's all text," emphasizes Peterson.
The CSA site was up for the public by early September. The purpose of the site, as the co-creators see it, is to emulate the role of the CSA itselfto provide a link between parents, students and the school. In addition to reminders of upcoming events, a description of the lunch menu, and the opportunity to listen to a cut from the senior band CD, the site offers links to the Buzz and volunteer information. There is a directory of faculty and staff, plus curriculum arranged by grade and class. Last month there was a plea from the Lost and Found to help reduce the overflow of forgotten jackets, sweaters and lunch bags.
One former practice site that has now been launched reflects their mutual interest in field hockey. Both girls play goalie. They also both play musical instruments. Peterson plays oboe and electric bass at Exeter, where she attends school, and Roberts plays flute in the CCHS band.
"There are [already] a lot of music sites out there," says Roberts, explaining their decision to set up a how-to site that would appeal to other goalies.
Peterson and Roberts have worked on other sites, some of which aren't up yet. And by word of mouth, mostly through extended family members, they are getting requests to do more.
"I could not have told you what HTML stood for before last summer," says Roberts. That they both acquired valuable information and skills is very apparent. That they did it so quickly and thoroughly is impressive. But there have been unexpected lessons as well.
"The Internet's not magical," Roberts muses. "People think that what's up [on a site] is fact, just because it's on-line." Peterson expands the thought. She was surprised when they started getting e-mails on their goalie site from young girls asking for help
"We're not that good," she laughs. But they do answer them when they can.
They have both discovered they don't want to pursue programming or web design as a career. They plan to work at it next summer, and maybe for a while after that, if it really takes off. They have had a taste of what hard work it can be.
"It had all been really pretty and really simple," says Peterson of her pre-programming days, when she used to go on-line and never think about what went into creating a site.
"There's so much more [there] than you see," adds Roberts, "so much more text."
For now, Peterson and Roberts have agreed to continue maintaining the site, with some regular help from Huntress. The teens admit to enjoying the ongoing connection to Carlisle Public Schools, a connection that would otherwise have given way to the demands of high school life. CCHS gives Roberts community service credit for her efforts.
As for the future of their creation, Peterson and Roberts don't anticipate much change. They would like to add some features, possibly including web pages created by individual classrooms. And, in keeping with the maturity and foresight they have so far displayed, they are looking for someone to help and take over when they both move on to college.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito