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Kenyan center supports literacy, development

Aisha Walcott, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, recently traveled to Laare, Kenya, as a representative of the Imara outreach program, which was funded by a grant from the MIT Public Service Center.

Her mission was to teach educators and other residents of the small rural village how to use computers, to help put in place strategies for sustaining the technology center and to ensure that it had the greatest impact possible.

Walcott admits that as a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), she has grown accustomed to her $283.5 million surroundings at the Stata Center. She can always count on working electricity, clean running water and being surrounded by the latest technology. Until her recent trip to Laare, Kenya, these were all things she depended on.

The Laare Community Technology Center (Lacotec) is located at the Laare Catholic Community Church compound and lacks many of the amenities Walcott has grown accustomed to. The small classroom is dimly lit; when the electricity is working, the light reveals a thin layer of dust covering the plastic chairs and hand-crafted wooden tables that serve as office furniture. One training manual is used to instruct classes of 10 to 15 students.

Walcott admits the differences posed "interesting" challenges, but she was more struck by the promise of the small community center than by any of its shortcomings. "It's amazing how much gets done in that small room," Walcott marvels. "There is so much room for potential growth and so much that can still be done."

The center was founded in 2005 through the efforts of Eric Mibuari, an MIT alumnus originally from Laare, and the MIT Public Service Center. It was one of the first projects taken on by the CSAIL Imara outreach program. It was founded to increase general computer awareness and literacy of Laare residents by providing accessible and inexpensive training on the use of computers.

Since the center began to operate in 2005, more than 120 students have been trained on its 10 computers, helping a significant number of them find better employment as teachers, clerks and technicians in local institutions and businesses. It has also made it easier for some of the students to get into more advanced computer courses in other technical colleges in the country.

Currently, the project is still in what Walcott refers to as its initial stages. Walcott knew that she was going to an area where people had very little exposure to computers, but she was not prepared for how little experience the teachers sent by the local primary schools had with computers.

Initially Walcott and her colleague, Shawntel Hines, also an MIT graduate student, asked the schools to send teachers who had some experience working with computers. With this in mind, Walcott prepared a curriculum geared toward introducing the teachers to the Edubuntu Linux-based educational software and showing them ways to incorporate it into their lesson plans.

At Walcott's first lesson with the teachers, it became apparent that none of the teachers had any prior experience with computers and the class would not be following the curriculum that she had designed. Instead, she adapted her curriculum "on the fly" to include topics ranging from proper care of the computers to basic operation of the hardware.

Rather than feeling frustrated by this experience, Walcott embraced the challenge. She praises the teachers for their willingness and ability to thrive with minimal direction, and particularly their desire to learn.

In parallel with the growth of the people in Laare, Walcott has undergone a personal growth of her own.

"You only live once. I want to make as big of a contribution to humanity as possible. The most natural way for me to contribute is through my passion for teaching," she said. By working with the Laare community, Walcott and other participants in the CSAIL Imara program have empowered residents to affect change in their community through computer technology.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 2, 2007 (download PDF).

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