By Anna Guido
WALNUT HILLS - Othello Gooden Jr. builds radio transmitters and model elevators, reprograms video games, rebuilds computers and composes music.
"I've always been fascinated about how computers and machines work," said Gooden, 18, of Golf Manor, a senior at the School for Creative and Performing Arts.
Gooden gets all the computers and machines he can handle at SmartLab, a hands-on enrichment center aimed at building the technology skills needed to bring urban youth and adults with developmental disabilities into the workplace.
Gooden attends SmartLab part of each school day. He's been attending the lab since his sophomore year.
SmartLab currently has a partnership with Cincinnati Public Schools. Other students with special needs come through SmartLab through referrals from organizations like the Board of Mental Retardation and Developmenal Disabilities.
A composer and jazz pianist, Gooden has Asperger's syndrome, a neurobiological disorder that causes autistic-like behaviors in persons of normal intelligence.
In the lab, which looks much like a museum of science and industry, Gooden moves with confidence from one work station to another, talking about his work and providing mini-demonstrations.
"We try to help the kids when they stumble, but we don't do the walk for them," said Greg Williams, SmartLab employment trainer. "My job is to make the wheels turn."
SmartLab students work on projects that span one to two weeks and present weekly updates in class. When finished, they write detailed reports and file them in a project binder.
Teaching students to write and focus their ideas on paper is a program goal, Williams said. SmartLab models a workplace environment. Its students, who are referred by teachers, follow a plan but can veer off course to work on other projects of interest.
For example, a casual discussion about "who lives in the worst neighborhood" was turned into a research project about neighborhood crime rates.
"We turned it into a positive and what they learned is that each neighborhood had varying degrees and different types of crime," SmartLab service coordinator Jennifer Jones said.
Located at 2601 Melrose Ave., SmartLab is a program of the Work Resource Center, a non-profit organization and an alternative school site for CPS students.
SmartLab, founded in 1985, is part of the San Diego-based Creative Learning Systems' chain of labs. It is the only lab geared to disabled people, said David Dreith, director of work services for the Work Resource Center.
In the United States and Canada, there are more than 700 SmartLabs.
Students receive science credit for participation in SmartLab, but can also get credit for language arts, math and other courses, Dreith said.
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