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Imara Project: Making a Difference
March 20, 2007 - Aisha Walcott, a PhD candidate at MIT in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, recently traveled to a rural farming village of Laare, Kenya. This was made possible by a MIT Public Service Center grant to work with the CSAIL sponsored Imara outreach program. Her work was at the Laare Community Technology Center (Lacotec). Lacotec was founded in 2005 by Eric Mibuari, an MIT Alum, with the assistance of MIT's Public Service Center. The aim of this community center is to increase general computer awareness and literacy in the Laare community by providing cheap, local and accessible training on the use of computers.
Aisha's mission was two-fold. First, it was to teach educators and residents of the small village of Laare how to use computers. Second, it was to implement strategies for sustaining the technology center and ensuring that the center has the greatest impact possible.
As a member of CSAIL (the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), Walcott admits that she has grown accustomed to her $283.5 million surroundings at the Stata center in Cambridge, MA. She can always count on reliable electricity, clean running water, and a modern work environment. Working in Laare required a different operational framework to meet the goals of the project.
Lacotec is located in a classroom at the Laare Catholic Community church compound. The classroom is dimly lit, when the electricity is working. There are wooden work tables crafted by local artisans and plastic chairs. One training manual is shared by the instructor and the ten to fifteen students.
Walcott says that these differences posed interesting challenges, but she was excited by the promise of this small community center. Lacotec was one of the first projects taken on by the CSAIL Imara outreach program. 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. Some of the students have also found it easier to gain admission to more advanced computer courses in other technical colleges in the country after being trained at the center.
"It's amazing how much gets done in that small room," Walcott marvels, "there is so much room for potential growth."
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 was not prepared for how little experience her student would have using computers. Aisha and her partner requested the schools send teachers who had some exposure to computers. With this in mind, Walcott prepared a curriculum geared toward introducing the teachers to the Edubuntu GNU/Linux-based educational software and then showing them ways to incorporate it into their lesson plans.
The reality was none of the teachers who participated had any computer experience. At Walcott's first lesson with the teachers it became apparent that 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 to basic operation of the hardware.
Rather than feeling frustrated, Walcott welcomed the opportunity to learn from this new challenge. She praises the teachers for their willingness and ability to thrive with minimal direction, and particularly their desire to learn. "For many of the teachers, this is their first time using computers. They did not realize how computers could be relevant in their day to day lives," Walcott said.
In parallel with the growth of the people in Laare, Walcott has undergone a personal growth of her own. She discovered the fundamental importance of community development in teaching developing communities about technology. Walcott admits one of the reasons for her trip was to explore a new direction for her future- and that is exactly what she found. She speaks excitedly about using her research in robotics and other technologies to fit community needs and to uplift the people.
"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." By working with the Laare community, Aisha and other participants of the CSAIL Imara program have empowered residents to affect change in their community through computer technology.