A team of Cornell students who set out last summer to deliver laptop computers to children in Africa has returned to report a job well done -- although not exactly the job they had planned.
Eli Luxenberg '10 and James Elkins '11, both information science majors, received a grant of $10,000 from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation to deliver 100 XO laptops to Tidjikja, Mauritania, on the west coast of Africa. Their grant had been set up in collaboration with Luxenberg's brother, Seth Luxenberg '08, an administrator with the Peace Corps in Mauritania.
But when the students arrived in Rwanda for a training session, they found that for political reasons, Mauritania would not issue visas to Americans. After connecting with a Peace Corps worker in Mboro, a small coastal mining town in adjoining Senegal, however, they connected with a small Catholic school there whose administrator had been looking for a way to supply computers to his students.
"Students need to know how to read; they need to know how to write; and they need to know how to use computers. Computer illiteracy is illiteracy," said Pierre Khar Tine, director of the Ecole Notre Dame.
So Elkins and Luxenberg headed for Mboro, where they stayed June 18-Aug. 8. Teaming up with two students delivering another 100 laptops on behalf of Rotary International, they were able to supply almost every student in grades 2-5 in the school with a laptop.
The team recruited members of the community to dig trenches for Ethernet cables, install wireless routers and build charging cabinets.
But their most important job was training: "We spent three weeks training teachers before we started training students," said Elkins. "That was important. If the teachers aren't comfortable, they're just going to let the computers sit on the shelf." In one Rwanda location, laptops had been delivered six months before and were still in their boxes, he said.
The team is still in touch with many of the teachers by e-mail, he added.
Students, however, were immediately receptive. "Students always run faster than the teachers," Elkins said. "They want to explore, check out and try out everything on this computer."
The students promptly used the video, audio and writing capabilities of the XOs to interview members of the community and prepare reports on career choices. When the Cornellians left, the schoolchildren were preparing to put out a newspaper.
"We don't believe that computers alone will greatly impact Mboro, but we do believe that the students who own these laptops will," said Stephanie Selvick of the University of Miami, a member of the Rotary team. "[They] have taken a break from their daily routine of rote memorization and have begun asking serious questions about themselves and their community. With more time, they'll start to create positive change."
Luxenberg and Elkins have formed a small Cornell club and hope to recruit more students to apply for grants and go on similar expeditions. More information at http://www.cornellolpc.com.
The rugged XO laptops are designed to withstand rough treatment, work in extreme climates and be recharged from a variety of sources. They cost about $175 apiece; so far, OLPC has distributed more than 900,000 to children in developing countries around the world.