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World is virtual, but the friendships are real

First you walk past the outdoor theatre in the round with the park benches and the floating screens.

Then you go past the oddly-shaped house textured with graffiti from an actual building in the Netherlands. Continue on toward the water, and when you get tired of walking, take off like Superman and fly toward the gray cylindrical tower.

When you reach the top, you discover it's not a tower, but a tunnel that dives down into an underwater structure being constructed by kids in Tampa and Amsterdam.

Welcome to Kidz Connect, an innovative summer camp program at the Patel Conservatory that has Dutch and American kids combining theatrical talents through video streaming and a virtual world.

More than just a high-tech program for pen pals, the students from both cities are working together to create a show featuring live theater and online performances. At the core of the effort is the virtual world they've created through Teen Second Life, a three-dimensional online society.

"By creating something together, they're learning about each other and in the process, they're having fun," said Josephine Dorado, creator and co-artistic director for the project.

The Tampa contingent initially connected with the Amsterdam kids, who study at the IVKO Montessori School, through video streaming. The first conversations involved clearing up a lot of preconceived notions.

The Amsterdam group, which includes a fairly famous child star named Abe (pronounced Ah-bah), wanted to know more about cheerleading, a sport that doesn't exist in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Tampa students who travel largely by car were surprised to learn the Amsterdam students get around mostly on bicycles.

But the Kidz Connect instructors who are teaching the students new songs and dances noted that many of the students focus more on similarities.

"They're just like us," said Ivaniel Reyes, 15, a student at Alonso High School. "We listen to basically the same music. They go to the mall and the movies just like we do."

In the Teen Second Life World. Each student creates an avatar — an animated character to represent them in the virtual world. It can look exactly like them or be a fanciful creation with purple skin.

The combination of cultural education and youthful exuberance is exactly what Dorado envisioned when she created the program. A Brandon High and University of South Florida graduate, Dorado eventually earned a Fulbright Scholarship and studied in Amsterdam for two years at the Waag School For Old and New Media.

This is the second edition of Kidz Connect, following a 2006 pilot program she conducted between Amsterdam youth and kids in New York, where she currently resides.

The mix of video streaming and virtual world plays right into the "What is Real" theme of the collaborative performance the kids will stage Saturday. The audience can watch online, through Second Life or at the Conservatory's TECO Theatre. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 day of show. Call (813) 229-STAR.

When the three-week project ends, a number of students said they hope to maintain their new friendships.

Thanks to the virtual world, anything is possible in the real world.

That's all I'm saying.

World is virtual, but the friendships are real 06/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:03pm]
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