Students bring tech support to third world countries

James Tetlow Nov 6, 2006

Technology is everywhere — from flat-screen TVs to one of the Robotics Club’s newest mobots. But for developing communities around the world, technology can be much harder to find. That is why robotics faculty member Bernardine Dias founded TechBridgeWorld, an organization devoted to the implementation of technological solutions for developing communities.

“To me, it is about empowering students and children around the world,” Dias said. “I love those ‘ah-ha’ moments when their eyes light up.”

Dias, who grew up in Sri Lanka and came to the U.S. for college, founded the program in 2004.

The initiative began the previous fall as a single class for students interested in bringing technology to underdeveloped nations. It was first taught by Dias and Rahul Tongia, a senior systems scientist in computer science and engineering and public policy. The class is now titled Technology for Developing Communities and has been joined by several other classes and an independent study program for graduate students. Dias and Tongia still teach the class.

“It’s about helping organizations with implementing new technology planning,” said Joe Mertz, TechBridgeWorld’s associate director and a faculty member in computer science and public policy.

Mertz directs Technology Consulting in the Global Community (TCinGC), an elective program that sends university students abroad for 10 weeks as technology consultants with government ministries and nonprofit organizations in developing communities.

“They didn’t have power half the time, sometimes no water, and tuberculosis was a big problem,” said Conrad Woodring, a recent graduate who went to the island of Ebeye in the Marshall Islands as part of the course.

Woodring and his partner, Daniel Dvinov, worked as technical consultants for the Bureau of Kwajalein Atoll Health Care Services, helping to manage a satellite program. Woodring said one of the hardest parts of the program was getting used to the local pace of life.

“The culture moved so much slower,” he said. “People have a different way of learning things, and it was tough learning the cultural boundaries.”
Other students in the program were involved with organizations in areas such as Palau, Chile, and Sri Lanka. Their duties ranged from teaching hospital technicians in Palau basic computer skills to writing an informational brochure in English for a nonprofit organization in Sri Lanka.

“The project is very tough, very challenging,” said Bridget Lewis, a senior in human-computer interaction and physics. “There were times when I wanted to go home, and others when I was like, ‘This is amazing!’ ” Lewis and her partner, Mingi Kim, worked as business consultants for the Centro Informatico at the Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdiva.

In addition to the TCinGC program, Mertz also teaches Technology Consulting in the Community (15-391), in which students learn technical consulting skills by expanding the information technology of local nonprofit organizations. One benefit of the course is that it can help prepare students for TechBridgeWorld’s overseas programs such as TCinGC or a V-Unit project.

The V-Unit is an independent study program for graduate students whose purpose is for students to “grow a vision” of what computer science and technology can do for society in non-traditional and under-funded areas. Students are expected to apply their skills in computer science and technology to issues faced by a local or foreign partner organization.

Ayorkor Mills-Tettey, a graduate student in robotics, designed a field study for her final project in the class. She later went to Ghana to implement the study.

The study, now titled Project Kané, involved using an automated reading tutor developed at Carnegie Mellon as a teaching aid for Ghanaian children.
“The inspiration was from knowing how much of a challenge illiteracy is in Ghana,” said Mills-Tettey, who spent a month in Accra, Ghana, working with children at the Abossey Okai Anglican ‘A’ Primary School as part of the pilot study for the program.

Many children in Ghana read well below their grade level and speak a native language at home while attending classes in English.

The study involved 18 children from grades two through four who worked with the reading tutor. Twelve students used the reading tutor 30 minutes a day for three weeks at a local Internet café, while the other six children used the reading tutor at home about two or three times a week.

“The children were great,” Mills-Tettey said. “They felt really special because they got the chance to leave school and use a computer.”

Many of these students had never used a computer before, and none of them spoke English as their primary language.

“It brought home how these kids don’t really have a lot of opportunity in their lives,” Mills-Tettey said. “Even this small opportunity meant a lot to them.”

Students in Technology for Developing Communities have helped design the second phase of Project Kané. In addition to her work with Project Kané, Mills-Tettey also taught an undergraduate course in robotics to students at Asheshi University in Ghana as part of the TechBridgeWorld initiative.

Other V-Unit projects have focused on helping children with disabilities. Robotics graduate students Nidhi Kalra and Tom Lauwers designed and implemented an electronic Braille writing tutor in collaboration with the Mathru School for the Blind in Bangalore, India. Lauwers and Kalra are currently designing a new version of the slate, which will have a much larger Braille cell so that children will be able to use it more easily.

“The biggest advantage is that when you’re first teaching people Braille, the feedback is delayed,” Lauwers said. “This system gives instant feedback on what the user typed, so you can tell the child what happened.”

Lauwers said the electronic slates have been very popular at the school.

Robotics graduate students Vinithra Varadharajan and Ling Xu are developing another tool for disabled children. The two are working with the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf to develop a computer program which will help teach American Sign Language to children at the school.

“We’re actually going to apply this in a real-world situation, with the intention to use it in a good way and making a difference,” Varadharajan said. Currently the pair is exchanging e-mails with the professor to work on the program’s software so that it matches the school’s needs.

“We came up with this project, and that was an experience on its own,” said Xu. Varadharajan will be graduating soon, but Xu will remain at Carnegie Mellon and plans on keeping in touch with the teacher after the project is finished.

While TechBridgeWorld has traditionally focused on education, the organization is looking to grow in new directions. “One of our immediate goals is disaster response,” said Dias. “I was in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit. There was so much chaos, and so little resources.”

Dias also wants to focus more on health care initiatives, though she said it depends on what students are most interested in.

TechBridgeWorld will be presenting a lecture on the Braille writing tutor project this Tuesday at 11 a.m. in Newell-Simon Hall 3305.