The week after I returned to the US from the Solomon Islands, I started leading a class at Illinois Institute of Technology that is focused on finding a solar-powering energy solution for Haiti’s OLPC project.
The class is a multidisciplinary, team-based, project-focused course, which is part of the Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program. All IPRO classes focus on real-world projects that allow participants a hands-on experience—I cannot imagine a better platform for carrying out a research-in-action agenda!
But first, a little background on the Haiti OLPC project we’re partnering with. The project, as well as the partnerships surrounding this class, began a few years ago.
In 2008, Haiti received a donation of approximately 11,000 laptops from the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Foundation and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), as part of the Give-One-Get-One initiative across the US. Unfortunately, one main issue that the donors did not consider in their gift-giving was that 95% of Haiti’s primary schools lack electricity; those few that have it most often utilize expensive and polluting diesel generators. Haiti’s educational system was already in a state of disarray, but the situation made worse by the devastating earthquake of January, 2010. Bringing electricity and technology into the schools could hold promise for improving the children’s educational experience, but without a way to charge the laptops, the entire (official) OLPC program in Haiti is at risk of failure.
Before the laptops were sent to Haiti, the Coordinator of the OLPC program negotiated to receive fewer laptops than had previously been designated, and in place of these, receive funds allocated for teacher training and school electrification. As a result, $5,000 was allocated for each school’s electrification. However, when the Ministry of Education put out a bid for a local solar company to estimate electrification costs, the company’s estimate was based on powering 30 off-the-shelf 45 watt laptops, using an expensive and inefficient power inverter, for 24-hour electrification. This estimate did not take into consideration the lower power needs of OLPC’s XO laptops (5-6 watts), nor the fact that some schools will have 400+ of these laptops to charge on a regular basis—in other words, the estimate was a mismatch to the needs. The private-company’s estimate was $14,000 per school, at which point the Minister of Education canceled plans for solar power, and the electrification process has been put on hold—as has the OLPC deployment, to a large extent.
The coordinator of Haiti OLPC, Guy Serge Pompilus, met the President of Green Wifi, Bruce Baikie, in Rwanda in 2009, at a global OLPC conference. Pompilus, being an expert in education, asked for help from Baikie, an expert in solar powering for ICT in the developing world. Guy Serge was aware of the energy constraints facing the primary schools, as well as the fact that the private Haitian solar company’s estimate was over OLPC’s budget. Baikie, who is based in Berkeley, California approached me while I was still a post-doc at UC Berkeley, and we started brainstorming how students at IIT—where I would shortly be moving and begin teaching, could get involved in helping with this project.
Bruce and I visited Haiti Nov. 2009 on a site inspection, and the following spring, Guy Serge came to IIT’s campus in Chicago to give a talk about this project, and about the situation in Haiti following the earthquake.
Shortly thereafter, an IPRO class focused on this project was approved at IIT. The team came together in the following months.
Since this is my first semester leading the class, it has been a learning experience from day 1, and continues to be.
At the outset, I wanted a dual focus for the class: Solar powering the laptops and setting up multi-directional communications possibilities: between the IIT team in Chicago and the OLPC team in Haiti; for intra-Haitian communications among those participating in the OLPC project; and finally, between Haiti’s OLPC participants and with other OLPC projects around the world—particularly with the project in Patukae in the Solomon Islands I had just visited. My ambitions proved too ambitious for the first semester, and we have had to scale back our focus this semester to the solar-powering aspect.
Further details on the solar model will follow in the next post.