Tuesday, June 7, 2011

IESC Zambia: Week One

“Education is the key to success, education is the key to success,” chanted Hazel, the soft spoken but very determined 12th-grade head student during a student performance at the inauguration of the computer lab at Jonathan Sim-Chikanta High School.

The chant made us reflect on what lay ahead of us after a three-day journey that took us from the US and Singapore to this remote part of southern Zambia. We, the team of Intel volunteers consisting of John Parks (SSG), MJ Helgerson (SMG), Kandi Collier (TMG), Tim Lohman (FES), and Bernd Nordhausen (SMG) were at the start of a two-week assignment of the Intel Education Service Corps program to work with World Vision, Zambia to set up a new computer lab with Intel-powered classmate PCs and to train teachers and students.

Jonathan Sim-Chikanta High School is located in a remote area of the Kalomo District in southern Zambia. About 2 hours by car from the nearest town of Choma over mainly unpaved dusty roads, cut off at times during the rainy season, this high school was funded through the amazing efforts of Austin Gutwein, the son of Intel employee Dan Gutwein (ECG). Austin founded Hoops of Hope, a US-based fund raising organization, at the tender age of 9 in 2004. Over the years, the efforts of this teenager have raised over 2.5 million dollars which have been used to fund, among other efforts, this school in Zambia and the new computer lab.

Building a computer lab at this only high school within a 50-mile radius presented unique challenges: rudimentary buildings, no mobile phone coverage, and, most critical, no access to electricity. Yet, through the ingenuity of World Vision Zambia and the fund-raising efforts of Hoops of Hope, we were now watching Austin cut the ribbon of the brightly orange painted former shipping container that now holds part of the key to success for the students of Jonathan Sim-Chikanta High School.

Austin’s father had approached Bernd a year ago to help design a fully solar-powered computer lab. With solar power, every watt of energy consumption saved results in hundreds of dollars in savings in solar equipment cost. Thus, we chose every piece of equipment in this lab carefully to consume the least amount of energy while providing maximum educational benefits.

Starting with the Intel-powered classmate PCs and the ULV (ultra low voltage) teacher laptops, we included a pico-projector and wireless access points that can run on the 12 volt DC (direct current) power that solar deployments produce. We installed energy efficient DC ceiling fans to provide cooling during the hot summer days, and energy saving lights to offer an opportunity to use the lab at night.

As there is no mobile phone coverage, Internet connection was not feasible (at least not for the moment), so we included the eGranary, an off-line digital library containing over 30,000 documents including Wikipedia and the Khan Academy educational videos.

These provide the students the look and feel of the internet without actual internet connectivity. We also were able to include the localized version of skoool (skoool.co.zm), to provide science and math content catered specifically towards the Zambian curriculum.

After the inauguration, our trainers MJ and Kandi started to train students and teachers, while Tim and I concentrated on configuring the PCs, and training the administrators to sustain the computer lab after we leave. JP (John Parks) held informal lessons outside of the lab and took the head teacher, Luke, under his wings to train him away from the watchful eyes of the students.

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