Sometimes a great notion

Computer Sciences Corp. recently took an online approach to brainstorming that has been tested by NASA and several other federal agencies, and put it to work for a group of teenagers seeking ways to deal with violence.

At a February conference of the National Youth Summit on Preventing Violence in Washington, D.C., CSC lent a hand, not to mention the technology, to tackle a tough topic in a new way.

Using electronic meeting room software developed by GroupSystems.com, 34 teenagers collaborated to propose policies for preventing teen violence and fostering community activism to combat problems caused by terrorism.

Instead of a traditional roundtable discussion, these teenagers worked online to enhance the process of gathering, reviewing and developing recommendations.

"This is not a chat room or a bulletin board. All participants can remain anonymous and input information and arrive at a net consensus," said Brice Marsh, a senior computer scientist at CSC who is a certified facilitator for electronic meetings at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The system has been used by various government agencies, including the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Air Force.

Marsh is an expert in using the technology for strategic planning, mission-statement development and electronic feedback. He is also president of Teen Think Tanks of America, a nonprofit organization working to unleash the brainpower of teenagers.

"We often can do in two hours what the same group could do in two weeks," said Marsh, who works on a similar project in Huntsville. "If everyone had a chance to speak, it would take 20 times as long as it now takes."

Instead, people are able to offer their ideas electronically, and the software ranks them based on their popularity (see "Seeking consensus"). Without wasting time talking, teams using this methodology develop more breadth and detail even as they cut the time it takes to do it, Marsh said.

"I've worked with teenagers for 10 years, and it is hard to get a consensus on anything. But this worked really well," said Linda Bonner, marketing director for United Way in Madison County, Ala.

"Rather than everyone talking at once, everyone was talking at once with their heads. Nobody felt they were being put upon to be quiet or that one person was taking control of the situation," she said.

And it was a hit with the teenagers, too. "It worked well. It was anonymous. People could tell you how they felt without sugar coating it," said Leslie Dean, 17, Alabama Girl's State governor, who attended the conference.

Dean, who will be a freshman at Jackson State University in Alabama this fall, said it took a while to grasp how the system worked.

"At first I didn't understand what they were talking about. How can we prevent terrorism? But then we got to thinking, came up with new ideas — if something did happen, how we as teens could keep ourselves mentally focused, how we deal with it emotionally, who can we talk to about it," she said.

Hamilton Sneed, a student at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, who's been involved in summits for five years, said, "In those five years, the youth forum used paper, pen and markers. This is one of the best things to enhance the process completely."

It is the first time the summit has used this kind of technology, he said, and it has brought together a large collection of ideas. Among them are 12 initiatives that young people can start in their communities to combat fear, panic or confusion related to terrorism.

After the brainstorming session, the teenagers sent their ideas to the U.S. Office of Homeland Security. Even those teenagers who have been labeled "at-risk" often contribute significant ideas in this kind of forum, Marsh said.

"They are trapped in an unfortunate capsule formed by various social and cultural pressures that prevents them from having a sense of self-worth," Marsh said. "When someone proves to them that they do have worth and someone is interested in what they have to say, they nearly always come through with innovative ideas."

***

Seeking consensus

GroupSystems.com's approach to electronic meetings saves time and increases efficiency.

* Participants gather in a conference room, with each person assigned to a computer. Participants do not have to be in the same room for this exercise.

* A test question is used for practice, such as "What do you think is mankind's most significant discovery?"

* Group members have five minutes to type in their ideas; they submit their responses with a click of the mouse.

* Comments are sorted based on frequency of response.

* Answers are projected on a screen, with the top 10 listed first. Responses are anonymous.

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