Undergrads taking hands-on learning to Africa by distributing free laptops

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Blaine Friedlander

This summer, James Elkins '11 and Eli Luxenberg '11 will hand out free laptops to 100 elementary schoolchildren in the rural city of Tidjikja, Mauritania, in northwest Africa, thanks to a $30,000 grant.

Elkins and Luxenberg received the grant through the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Association, a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit committed to creating and distributing affordable and durable laptops to the world's poorest children.

The hardy $200 XO laptops -- created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology media technology professor and OLPC founder and chairman Nicholas Negroponte -- have rubberized keyboards, long-lasting batteries, customized software, no moving parts and a 1 gigabyte flash memory hard drive.

The computers are intended to promote hands-on learning, as opposed to the rote memorization commonly practiced in Mauritanian schools, said Elkins. At least 750,000 children around the world -- a number expected to double this summer -- are already learning math, music and art, languages and science on OLPC computers.

"All children can succeed if given the right tools," said Elkins. "We need to go out and share the technology that has enabled us to learn."

Deciding which students will receive laptops will be a challenge, Elkins acknowledged. In an American system, such a gift would be merit-based, but Elkins said they plan to evaluate students independently to give laptops to children who demonstrate creativity and will benefit the most. Exact criteria are still to be determined.

"We have only 100 laptops," yet more than 1,000 students in the six elementary schools, he said.

Elkins and Luxenberg are working with the Peace Corps in Mauritania, where Luxenberg's brother, Seth '08, is a Peace Corps volunteer. That is how they know that working with Mauritanian schools can be challenging: Teachers rotate every year throughout the country and often take extended leave during the school year to be with their families; there are also such infrastructure problems as inconsistent power and Internet service.

Laptops supplied by OLPC accounted for two-thirds of the grant, and the remaining money will fund such expenses as travel to Africa, one year of power and Internet service in participating schools and technical supplies.

The two Cornell undergraduates -- both information science majors in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences -- will travel June 18-Aug. 19. They will undergo a one-week session with OLPC trainers in Rwanda and then travel to Tidjikja to pass out computers, implement their program and work with teachers in using the computers to promote hands-on learning.

The students continue to raise funds through private and public grants to return to Tidjikja next year, develop educational programs for the laptops and keep the electricity and Internet working for additional years.

To help with the Cornell OLPC program, contact Elkins at jhe44@cornell.edu or Luxenberg at eal95@cornell.edu.

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Krishna Ramanujan