Giving Teens a Voice

Rebecca Sallee - Hville

New technology may help in lassoing teen brain power
Local man develops software to aid youths in expressing selves

For The Huntsville (Alabama) Times
November 16, 2001

A Huntsville computer scientist has found a high-tech solution to the old-fashioned problem of teen angst.

Brice Marsh, a former schoolteacher who works at CSC Corp. as a certified professional facilitator of electronic meetings for NASA, is the founder of Teen Think Tanks of America, Inc. and has been invited to address the National Youth Summit on Violence in Washington, D.C. in February.

Using special software that allows rooms full of people to express their ideas anonymously and in real time, Marsh facilitates meetings among professionals on the job. But after hours, he applies the same technology to brainstorming sessions among groups of teen-agers on such strategic topics as school violence.

The technology is more effective than conversation in meetings, Marsh said, because the parties involved in the sessions are less likely to be influenced by someone they consider more powerful than themselves.

``If you have a general and a private and other people in between at a meeting, many times people will say `amen' because the general says it,'' said Marsh. ``If the private says it, they think, `What do you know?' Many times, the low-ranking person in the
room has the most innovative and the best ideas.''

Putting people on equal ground in a room full of computers that ``talk'' to each other allows ``everyone's ideas to get evaluated on the merits of the idea.''

Just as it works in industry, it works with teen-agers, who, ``if given an opportunity, have a lot to say,'' said Marsh. ``There's a lot of untapped brainpower going to waste because we've not found a way to help kids express themselves.''

A Blount County native and Auburn University graduate who taught for three years before becoming a systems engineer for IBM, Marsh first read about brainstorming in 1964 and soon began applying the principles of sharing ideas as a facilitator in the
corporate world ``without the benefit of computers and technology.''

About 10 years ago, he met Jay Nunamaker, a University of Arizona professor who developed Group Systems software that allows rooms full of people to chat in real time.

``I immediately grabbed onto the concept,'' said Marsh.

With his grown children and a grandchild, Marsh has ``a real compassion for the plight of today's teen-agers'' dealing with the potential for school violence.

He first invited a group of teens together to test their response to brainstorming technology in 1998. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and he has since conducted more than 25 teen think tank sessions with more than 400 teen-agers across the United States. In his 90-minute training session at the upcoming youth summit in Washington, D.C., Marsh will lead a roundtable discussion on school safety.

Two students from each state will attend the summit as ``McGruff ambassadors'' and will develop written findings and recommendations on various topics relating to prevention of youth violence, he said.

Through his work, Marsh said, ``I see kids that have potential and they're misunderstood,'' he said. ``I think we underestimate their ability by 100 percent.''

Twenty is the ideal number of people for a think tank because ``you lose something'' with more people involved, and with fewer numbers, it's hard to maintain anonymity. The ideal age of participants ranges from 15 to 19, he said, and the process takes about two hours. Marsh is seeking sponsorships for the program, which costs about $3,000 per session, and for his trip to Washington, D.C.