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Learning Lessons: Cyber Seniors

This story is part of a regular series, “Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,’’ that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania’s public schools. For other stories in the series go to

Most days, the residents of the Conestoga View Nursing & Rehabilitation facility in Lancaster don’t spend much time on the computer, or hanging out with young people. But, now, they’re getting plenty of time to do both, courtesy of the J.P. McCaskey High School Computer Club.

March 7 was the debut of Bryan Hower’s “Cyber Seniors” program, which he hopes will bridge the generational divide between his students and elderly folks in the Lancaster community, many of whom could benefit from some basic technological instruction. It also gives the kids a chance to take on a leadership role and pass along some knowledge of their own. The idea is that both groups come away having learned something valuable.

“I’ve been trying to find a community outreach program to do, and after reading an article about teenagers helping seniors with tech issues, it got me thinking,” said Hower, a computer science teacher at J.P. McCaskey, in Lancaster City School District, and the leader of the school’s computer club.

His original plan was to bring the kids over to make Christmas cards for the residents. But when he began speaking with the facility’s volunteer outreach coordinator, Kim Skinner, that idea morphed into a more immersive volunteer effort – one these residents sorely needed.

Catering to lower-income residents, Conestoga View lacks many of the resources of other facilities. Just four desktop computers are available for 434 residents. Hower saw an opportunity to give back to a segment of the community that not only demonstrated a clear need, but also might best appreciate the efforts his students were putting forth. Plus, it had the potential to clear up some preconceived notions he suspected might otherwise stand in the way of a smooth cross-generation exchange.

“We’re an urban school district,” he said. “People have this concept of what an urban student is. And the challenge I have is to make [them] understand that these are kids just like anywhere else. And they have a lot to offer anybody. Once we get in the door, and they see the great things our students can do, and how they can reach out to others, it just makes a great relationship with the community. And it tears down those walls and those misconceptions people have about an urban district and urban students.”


Laying out the presentation

Once the 10 residents who have signed up for today’s class make their way into the lounge and take their seats, the students deliver a short presentation that covers the basics of what a computer is and what purpose the different components serve. Eight slides lay out fundamentals like what a mouse is and how you use one, and the difference between a display and a CPU.

“We discussed that, knowing many of them did not have a lot of skills, so our presentation would be very basic. And then from there we could learn what they already knew,” Hower explained.

After the presentation, they broke off into smaller groups and helped some residents with one-on-one tasks tailored to their individual needs.

“We saw some doors open today of some clients that

didn’t know how to get on email or Facebook,” Hower said later. “And we found a friend of theirs or a niece of theirs on Facebook. It just opened doors and connections that they didn’t have before, and showed how technology can do that for everybody.”

All told, Hower considers the debut a resounding success. The kids and residents both clearly benefited from the interaction, with each group expressing a desire to do more.

“It was really neat to see how they connected through the technology,” Hower said. “One gentleman was born in 1949. And for a teenager, that’s like, forever. But to be able to see that they’re helping that person is really something. And then we had a lady who couldn’t speak because of a trach in her neck. But the kids were able to read her lips and connect to her – it couldn’t have gone any better.”


What comes next?

Hower is already planning a second trip to Conestoga View, and would like to make it an ongoing event, bringing the kids back two or three times a year. He’d also like to get local businesses involved to provide more equipment like computers and workstations. He doesn’t see why other types of classes couldn’t work equally well.

“You could bring the people from the woodshop over here to help clients who want to work with their hands. It could lead to all sorts of other connections with seniors in other programs and clubs,” Hower said.

He admits he was nervous about making sure this experience was positive for everyone involved. But the results speak for themselves. And it makes him excited about the future.

“I couldn’t have asked for it to go any better than it did. Just looking around and watching the talking and the interactions and seeing the kids – even some of the quiet kids – being really good teachers makes what I do every day worthwhile.”