By Lisa M. Rosellini
When a technology firm moved its business to Fayette County with a promise of hundreds of jobs, it discovered it could only fill about one-third of the computer-related positions it had open. With one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, Fayette County could have used that economic boost.
That's why faculty at Penn State Fayette are leading a new state-supported outreach effort designed to provide computer access and training to some of the 145,000 residents and 4,400 businesses in rural Fayette County.
Through a pilot project funded by the state's Center for Rural Pennsylvania, Penn State Fayette officials are creating Pennsylvania's first "community info-village" -- a program that officials hope will put a computer within a 15-minute drive of every county resident. Campus officials want to help advance rural communities by furnishing information about the value of technology, giving residents access to computers and providing training.
"This program, based on a similar model from Kentucky, will become a model for Pennsylvania," said Joseph E. Segilia, director of Continuing Education and Outreach at the Fayette campus and a project leader. "We hope for tremendous statewide application and replication."
The concept behind the info-village is to use technology to aid the economic, educational, health care, development and other important goals of rural areas. Much like electricity in the 1930s, project officials believe technology has the capacity to become the "great equalizer" for rural America.
Segilia said that after a "public awareness" phase of the project, which will be geared toward educating residents about the many uses of computers and their potential application to their daily lives, the project team will work on finding computers that can be put in public buildings, such as libraries, senior citizen centers and fire halls, for use by the general public.
"We also want to work with companies who can donate computers for these public sites," he said. "In fact, a state legislator has said he would like to use his local office as a site where people can come to browse the Internet, prepare a resume or look for job openings. Our campus will provide the motivation, technical support, administration and training during this project."
In addition, Penn State Fayette and Bell Atlantic are contributing $60,000 to the project, on top of the $50,000 grant from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. The project is eligible for up to three years of funding from the state, for a potential total of $150,000.
Segilia said his team has already looked at six public housing units within Fayette County and determined that these could be prime locations for a segment of their project.
"There are about 150 units in each of these buildings and there is housing money available to fund computer stations there," Segilia said. "We'd like to work with officials to establish computer centers in each building with two, three or four computers. During the day, single mothers who are at home can attend a session given by a faculty member to learn how to use the computer. When their children come home from school, the children could then attend a class taught by our faculty that is specifically for kids."
Segilia said it is his hope that people who show an aptitude for the computers, could then be groomed to become trainers themselves.
"Hopefully, these newly acquired skills will lead to a job -- either training others or out in the work force at companies and small businesses," he said. "We really want to impact on the unemployment rate of this county."
The project, also being led by John Sokol, associate professor of engineering, is focused on using technology to support and advance a community's common goals. Some of the benefits outlined by project leaders in their original proposal include work force development, work-ready employees, informed and educated residents, increased economic competitiveness, better access to health, job and education information, and an improved quality of life.
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