SCI Researchers Spearhead Effort to Improve Educational Access in Rural Villages in Sierra Leone

October 20, 2022

Under the leadership of Dr. Kuo-Ting (Tim) Huang and Dr. Luis de Oliveira (faculty members with the Department of Information Culture and Data Stewardship and Department of Computer Science), SCI researchers have undertaken a project which seeks to improve the affordability of education in rural areas. Through SCI’s Summer Scholars program, junior computer science major Luke Charlesworth ’24 modified a donated PC laptop to prototype a server that can distribute virtual educational content to client devices. Charlesworth got the idea for this Summer Scholars project through his work with World Possible, a non-profit with the goal of utilizing technology to connect offline learners with the world’s knowledge. “My project serves as a prototype for how used hardware can be salvaged to benefit under-resourced communities,” Charlesworth said. "Thanks to our consumer-based economy, America has an abundance of depreciated technology. Hopefully, this shows that we should think twice before throwing our old laptop or smartphone away, because chances are it can be repurposed to help others."

Through several vital modifications, donated laptops can now have a new life as a server for educational content in areas without the internet. First, changes were made to the operating system to support various educational web servers such as Kahn Academy, Kolibri, and Wikipedia. Additionally, through a novel use of the laptop's network interface card, researchers were able to create a mock Wi-Fi network that can be used to distribute the server's content to other devices. 

Now that SCI researchers have established this process for converting donated laptops into educational servers, they have partnered with World Possible to integrate this technology into three Sierra Leonean villages: Kabala, Fadugu, and Senekedugu. These villages have large schools for grades K-5, but have barely any modern textbooks or other learning resources, making them great locations to test this technology. 

The next step is setting up the infrastructure within these villages to support the servers. Junior Electrical Engineering student Chris Kefalos has been hard at work designing a solar system that can power the laptops along with client tablets for student use. He plans to install 250-watt panels on the school's roofs as the power source. Charlesworth and Kefalos are traveling to Sierra Leone in May, and with the help of their Pitt advisors, plan to start piloting educational programs for students to begin utilizing these resources in the three villages. If successful, this program could help to reduce the education gap in underserved areas and give used laptops a second life instead of ending up in the trash.

Visit the World Possible - Sierra Leone website, created by Charlesworth and fellow researchers, to learn more.