Giving Teens a Voice

CSC Article

CSC Voices: Brice Marsh

CSC Computer Scientist Gives Teens a Voice to End ViolenceBrice Marsh believes that giving teens a voice could be the most important step in preventing violence in schools. “Everyone is talking to school officials, law enforcement and psychologists, but no one is asking the kids what they think,” observed Marsh, a senior computer scientist with CSC. “Teens feel powerless, and powerlessness is the seedbed of violence.”

Marsh has found a way to give teens voices. Disturbed by a rash of school shootings in 1998, Marsh applied his expertise in electronic meeting systems (EMS) to create Teen Think Tanks of America, Inc., a unique brainstorming event where teens combine their collective thinking and reach conclusions on the best ways to deal with school violence.

Working nights, weekends and vacation days, Marsh facilitated the world's first Teen Think Tank on School Violence in 1998 with a group of students from Birmingham, Ala. Since then, Marsh has coordinated and facilitated 25 Teen Think Tanks from California to Washington, D.C. with the use of GroupSystems WorkGroup Edition software for electronic meetings, produced by GroupSystems.com. The software allows participants to brainstorm electronically and then organize their ideas through an anonymous voting process that prioritizes ideas automatically based on their perceived relevance.

Marsh, who works on the Program Information Systems Mission Service (PrISMS) contract at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., helped introduce EMS technology to CSC and has used the GroupSystems software for hundreds of NASA meetings, both technical and organizational. At one point, he successfully facilitated a meeting with NASA, the US Air Force, the US Navy, the National Reconnaissance Office and the Central Intelligence Agency to increase interagency cooperation.

A Teen Think Tank starts with an invitation to students from teachers, counselors and community leaders. Each session of 20 students consists of 25 percent "at-risk" students, 25 percent high achievers and 50 percent average students. Each participant works at a laptop computer that is networked into a file server. With full anonymity, students enter their thoughts and ideas about school violence during an intensive brainstorming session.

Electronic brainstorming has its advantages

Electronic brainstorming is superior to traditional verbal brainstorming techniques for this teen audience, Marsh says. Ideas, entered simultaneously and anonymously online, flow faster than during a verbal discussion and give everyone an equal voice. A shy and soft-spoken student is heard just as clearly as the most outspoken kids, with no fear of criticism. Students can view everyone else's ideas, triggering new ideas and input. The system’s anonymity makes it more likely that all spontaneous ideas, no matter how innovative or even “out there,” can be heard, while the system’s brainstorming and discussion features allow for efficient and organized fleshing out of these ideas. “That’s the magic,” Marsh says. “Half-baked ideas don’t get laughed at. They become catalysts for discussion, and people take them and run with them. It’s unique.”

During the brainstorming, teens generate hundreds of issues and causes for teen violence. Some of the causes of violence most frequently mentioned include parental neglect, lack of acceptance by peers and lack of values and ethics. The students, as a group, prioritize their ideas and narrow the list down to the three to five most critical issues that teens face. Students then brainstorm solutions and action items for each issue. Again, hundreds of ideas are generated and the list is narrowed down to the top three to five best ideas for combating teen violence. Regardless of where Think Tanks are held, teens across the country tend to come up with many of the same solutions to violence: greater respect between teachers and students, tolerance of diversity and greater sensitivity to threats.

Once the initial brainstorming process ends, teens expand and enrich these ideas. The final outcome is a report with recommendations for students, parents, teachers, school administrators, law enforcement officers and legislators that will help them to predict and prevent youth violence. The results of each session are posted on the Internet at www.teenthinktanks.org.

"When students first enter, you can sense a feeling of trepidation and uncertainty," said Marsh. "When they leave three hours later, you can see in their faces an enthusiasm and a tremendous sense of accomplishment. They realize that they are part of something that is making their community and their school a safer place for teens."

More uses for think tanks

Marsh stresses that these think tanks aren’t limited to violence. For instance, in February a think tank in Tracy, Calif., addressed the issue of community teen activities. Teens and adults brainstormed about activities ranging from organizations like the Boy Scouts to a weekly “Karaoke Night,” ranking the various options by importance. In a display that Marsh says demonstrates the power of the system’s anonymity, adults thought the karaoke was important while the kids were much less enthusiastic. “If you’d had a traditional discussion, the kids would have been less likely to speak out—they might have just gone along with the adult view,” Marsh says.

Marsh also suggests the technology as a form of grief counseling in which participants can ask anonymous questions of grief counselors, with the exchanges displayed on a big screen. This way, even those who don’t ask questions can benefit vicariously from the questions and answers. “Most of the time, the people who ask the questions aren’t the ones who need the most help,” Marsh points out. The anonymity of the system combined with the big-screen displays allows for greater benefit to quiet participants than traditional grief counseling. In November of last year Marsh spoke at the Harvard University School of Public Health on how the technology could improve grief-counseling services for survivors of violence.

Marsh’s think tanks have attracted broad attention. In March, he was invited to Washington to meet former president George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara, as well as Dr. Bill Bennett, Secretary of Education under Reagan. There he discussed the program and expressed his hope that, with the necessary funding, the program could expand nationally.

Marsh says that kids themselves have constantly encouraged him. “One time, a kid told me, ‘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’s why we need these think tanks.”

Related Information:

Learn more about CSC and its employees in CSC's About Us section.

Learn more about Teen Think Tanks of America.

Contact Brice Marsh at 256.508-9470 or bricemarsh@aol.com