Outreach: Empowerment through education and technology

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The leaders of CSAIL’s outreach programs often get asked the question, “Why is a research lab doing outreach?”

The answer is quite simple, according to CSAIL Assistant Director Jack Costanza, who is primarily responsible for the infrastructure of CSAIL’s 800-plus person lab. Costanza heads up the lab’s outreach efforts, along with Daniela Rus, a CSAIL associate director and professor in MIT’s EECS Department. “We have incredibly intelligent people in this lab who work at solving everyday social and technological problems,” says Costanza. “When you challenge them with a problem from a third world country, they develop creative, outside-the-box solutions that no one else would think of – but that have a major impact on people in need.” In 2005, CSAIL launched an initiative called Imara as an umbrella for the lab’s outreach work. Under Imara, which is Swahili word for “power,” CSAIL creates sustainable education and technology programs that empower people of all ages and can literally change their lives. “Imara’s intention is to provide people with tools that help them improve the quality of their lives,” says Costanza. “Here at MIT, we consider education to be a major tool in our toolbox.” The lab has developed many successful programs and tools to date, including a computer literacy “teach the teacher” program and an educational computer, both of which were utilized in Fiji where Rus and Costanza trained teachers representing each of the area’s 15 elementary schools. These teachers then took a laptop back to their school and trained the rest of the school’s teachers. “The Imara laptop, which has an extended battery life for use in areas with limited electricity, is equipped with basic reading, writing math, and science educational software, with different levels of learning for students from K-8 grades,” says Rus. “The computers, which are being used by an average of 200 children in each school, are making a huge difference in how they learn.” Motivated by passion CSAIL’s outreach programs typically are heart-felt responses to needs of necessity that are discovered firsthand by lab members, according to Rus, who met the people in Fiji during one of her robotic experiments. “Our outreach work is driven more by passion than by job responsibility,” adds Costanza. “We just do what we think is the right thing to do at the time.” CSAIL has also implemented similar Imara outreach programs in Kenya and in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. Kenya’s Laare Community Technology Centre, recently featured on BBC, has helped high school students learn basic computer skills that will provide them with new employment options. At Diné College, CSAIL helped teach a computer science class and distribute refurbished computers to local families in the Navajo Nation. Education outside the lab’s walls CSAIL’s outreach programs have provided students with education outside of their normal curriculum, according to Costanza. “MIT has tons of resources, but when you’re in Fiji or Kenya, all of a sudden, you have to become very creative in doing things you normally take for granted, such as bringing connectivity to a small remote town,” says Costanza. “The outreach programs train our students to be educators as well as scientists,” says Rus. “Students become are more balanced in their disciplines, with a broader, more global outlook and with better preparation for the next step after MIT.” “MIT’s mission is to develop the next generation of world leaders and what better way to do it than to expose students to the needs of the world,” adds Costanza. Reaching out to future scientists A benefit of the CSAIL’s outreach efforts is the ability to reach high school students who may want to considering attending MIT and joining CSAIL. “We’re participating in a number of programs that provide where students who wouldn’t normally think of attending MIT a glimpse of the opportunities the Institute offers,” says Costanza. One such program is a yearly daylong tour of the lab for students from NASA’s Robotics Space Academy. The students meet faculty and see what kinds of robotic research programs are underway. “We’re also developing a program that we hope to offer to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, where students would come to our lab and create their own robots,” says Rus. “We would like to show them that there are some exciting careers here in computer science, engineering, and of course, robotics.” New initiatives CSAIL is continually developing new outreach initiatives, often because of someone approaching the lab and requesting assistance. CSAIL recently was asked to develop a computer literacy program for Tibetan refugees in India. “The Dalai Lama would like these people, who were farmers in Tibet, to learn modern computer skills so they can lead more fulfilled lives,” says Rus. Rus and Costanza are currently seeking funding from industry partners for this program. “With additional financial support,” says Costanza “we could make a greater impact than we already have.” He adds, “There is much to be done in the world.”