Looking through Facebook statuses, Stephanie Selvick, a University of Miami graduate student, saw an update that changed her summer.
One of her friends from her master’s programs had put a link to One Laptop per Child, an organization that oversees the creation of affordable computers for developing countries, up on her profile.
With nine days left to register, Selvick decided to pursue this opportunity.
“I was like, this is really going to screw up everything that I planned for my summer, but this looks kind of interesting,” she said.
OLPC responded by giving her a $10,000 grant. With the funds, she and teammate Justin Burnett, a senior at the University of Minnesota, brought 200 laptops to École Notre Dame, a elementary school in Mboro, Senegal.
Over the course of six weeks, they taught the children and adults there to operate these machines.
“From the first day we got there, the kids wanted to be our friends,” Burnett said. “Before we even started working, one group of girls had already invited us to go to the beach with them for the day.”
The students were generally Catholic or Muslim. They came from various economic backgrounds, but shared a desire to learn.
“All of the kids were enthusiastic and motivated from the start,” Burnett said. “They were able to pick up most basic skills quickly and impressively well. As I saw the kids begin to work the computers, I realized that this won’t just improve the way subjects are taught or learned, but it will get kids excited about doing it.”
The laptops were a variety of neon colors such as green and pink and featured French and English programming games and educational software that the teachers could incorporate into their curriculum.
Despite a language barrier, Selvick and her team were able to teach entire classes.
“Really, you only need to teach one student how to do something,” Selvick said. “So, if you can get one student that speaks a little bit of English you’re like this is how you do it and then they’ll teach everyone else, within a minute.”
The students, who were in first through fifth grade, even learned how to make videos on the laptops and went around town to conduct interviews and film the townspeople.
Selvick said the community and especially the mayor, whose wife taught at the school, were excited about the laptops.
Still, Selvick says she does not know how the computers will affect Mboro over time because education is not a cultural focus in western Africa.
“Education really isn’t their primary [concern],” Selvick said. “It was something that was kind of a culture shock for me.”
The director of École Notre Dame, already an advocate of computer literacy, was grateful for the laptops, making the school more receptive to the project.
The school also received free power and clean water from the local phosphorous factory, adding zero cost to the school for the use of the laptops.
For Burnett, the project shed light on the realities of international aid.
“This project did give me a new look at how foreign aid works,” Burnett said. “We saw a lot of half-finished or abandoned projects and we don’t want that to be this one.”
Correction (Oct. 12, 2009):
This story, published on Oct. 1, 2009, says that education was not a focus in Western Africa. It should have said that education was not a focus in Senegal.