Giving Teens a Voice

Huntsville Times - 2002

Teen Think Tanks gives positive way to unleash students' brain power

Computer scientist with NASA developed electronic method to let youths' voices be heard

Times Staff Writer


First came the violence, then the questions.

After the school shootings in such normally peaceful communities as Jonesboro, Ark., and Columbine, Colo., parents, police, school and government officials, members of the media all asked, "Why?"

Brice Marsh is sure communication is the key to preventing such tragedies, but he thinks the questions need to be answered and the answers examined and acted upon long before the gunfire starts.

That's why Marsh, a computer scientist working with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, developed Teen Think Tanks of America Inc., an electronic brainstorming method that lets teen-agers express their ideas, opinions and concerns in a positive, noncritical environment.

"I'm convinced our teen-agers have far more ability and brain power than we give them credit for," said Marsh, a former school teacher, parent and grandparent. "As a facilitator of an electronic brainstorming session at NASA, I thought this could be used to let kids express ideas without peer pressure."

The session starts with a group of teens seated at a U-shaped table. Each participation has a computer terminal. All the terminals are connected to a server monitored by the facilitator.

Participants are asked to type their ideas about the topic at hand into the computer. The responses appear, anonymously, on a large screen at one end of the room. Participants can respond instantly to others' ideas. The computer program that runs the session allows the facilitator to arrange responses in order of importance based on the number of participants who typed in or agreed with each response.

Marsh conducted his first Teen Think Tank on school violence in Birmingham in July 1998. Other sessions followed in Huntsville, California and Arizona. Along the way, he's picked up endorsements from U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer and other state and local officials.

But it's been the responses from students that have reassured Marsh he's on the right path.

"One boy came up to me after a Teen Think Tank session. He said, 'I'm 18 years old. This is the first time an adult asked me for my opinion. My parents give me orders. My teacher gives me assignments. My preacher preaches to me. But no one listens to me.' That haunted me."

Marsh said his program is all about giving teens a voice.

"I fully believe if they're given an opportunity to express themselves, they will surprise even me in their innovative ideas."

When students from across the United States gathered in Washington, D.C., in February for the 2002 National Youth Summit on Preventing Violence, they used the Teen Think Tank approach to look at eight major topics: crime prevention basics, substance abuse, safe schools, community activism, technology crime, media, entertainment and policy. Event organizers were able to add a last-minute ninth topic - terrorism and homeland security - because of Teen Think Tank's ability to generate a list of problem areas and possible solutions quickly.

More than 800 young people ranging in age from 12 to 20 attended the summit. From these, a select group of 34, designated as the McGruff Ambassadors, represented the larger assembly in Teen Think Tank sessions.

Buckhorn High School senior Leslie Dean, governor of Alabama's Girls State, was one of the ambassadors. She said she appreciated the chance to express her opinions and work on problem-solving skills.

"Adults don't understand," she said. "Who's going to step into their shoes? Us."

Leslie and the members of her Teen Think Tank safe schools group talked about how low self-esteem leads to anger and anger leads to violence. They also came up with ways to diffuse the anger.

"Don't neglect or put down people," she said. "We learned that groups are helpful but not cliques."

Students in other Teen Think Tanks have come to the same conclusion as Leslie's group, Marsh said.

"We can't measure how many acts of violence that would prevent," he said.

Marsh wants to spread the Teen Think Tank method across the country. The exposure his program received at the Washington summit has brought several invitations but not the money to accept them.

"The right kind of people are inviting me, but I can't afford to go," he said. "American Youth Crime Watch in Orlando, Fla., wanted me to come. I was scrambling around trying to get equipment but just couldn't make it happen."