April 21, 2023
In October 2022, student researchers Luke Charlesworth (CS '24) and Chris Kefalos (IS '24) initiated a project to transform donated computers into accessible educational resources for communities in Sierra Leone. Now, joined by Kaisamba Wisnieski (IS '23), the three students are traveling to Sierra Leone for the next step in their work: to integrate the resources they’ve developed into the classroom.
In the early stages of their work, Charlesworth and Kefalos revitalized old computers to support servers specially designed to run three main applications for STEM-related learning: Khan Academy, Kolibri, and Wikipedia.
RACHEL PC, the original model for the computers used to run these educational applications, was designed by Charlesworth and has since been modified to require less power. According to Charlesworth, this new change, done in collaboration with Luis de Oliveira (Department of Computer Science), helped prolong the use and accessibility of the system with limited access to energy.
“We have a new and improved prototype in the works and then we will be repeating the configuration process on five other laptops, set to become RACHEL-hosted servers,” said Charlesworth on the ongoing innovation of the technology.
Now, the team is preparing to travel to the Northern Kabala village, located near the northern border of Sierra Leone, Africa. Departing in May, Charlesworth, Kefalos, and Wisnieski will spend five weeks setting up the technology, educating students and teachers on how to take advantage of the resources, and collecting data in order to optimize the usefulness of the technology.
"Since summer 2022, they have been diligently working on enhancing the infrastructure. The objective of their trip extends beyond the implementation of their design; it also includes training the local community in the use and troubleshooting of these technologies,” said Dr. Kuo-Ting (Tim) Huang (Department of Information Culture and Data Stewardship).
On-site, Kefalos will first work to install solar panels to power the systems: “I have designed the solar system with its configuration of the proper protective devices, solar panels, and batteries for our desired load. I will also be doing the bulk of the work to install the system once we get to the village,” said Kefalos.
With the technology set up, the focus will shift to the implementation of the resources within the classroom. These efforts will be headed by Wisnieski, who has created walkthroughs and tutorials to help teachers “deploy [the software] in a classroom and troubleshoot issues.”
To ensure optimal access and success for students and teachers, Wisnieski will also analyze “the cultural and infrastructural barriers the system faces, and use his knowledge of Leonean culture to find innovative solutions,” said Charlesworth.
Charlesworth will also be involved in the process of ensuring the new technology benefits the community. Along with Wisnieski’s walkthroughs and tutorials, Charlesworth will be initiating methods of data collection to gather feedback and make improvements that reflect the needs of the classroom.
“My main job in Sierra Leone will be conducting classroom experiments of the technology, where we have a teacher deploy it, give their students a bunch of tablets, and walk them through a mathematics Khan Academy exercise that relates to relevant subject materials,” said Charlesworth. “I am also creating software and human-based data collection methods so we can analyze the effectiveness of this technology after we leave and build a sharable research report for future scalability.”
As these three students forge new levels of innovation and dedication in their project, they continue to make use of old and otherwise discarded technology, creating unprecedented access to relevant educational resources.
"As an advisor for this innovative project, I am proud to witness the dedication of Luke, Chris, and Kai in their efforts to create accessible educational resources for under-resourced communities in Sierra Leone,” said Huang. “This project has the potential to transform the lives of students and teachers in these communities, paving the way for a brighter future and bridging the digital divide."
To donate a laptop or tablet no longer in use, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Donated technology will be revitalized and used by the team in Sierra Leone in May.
For more information about the work being done by Charlesworth, Kefalos, Wisnieski, visit their website: World Possible––Sierra Leone. Visit the team’s GoFundMe page to make a donation and support their work.
--Emma Bender, SCI writing intern