By Hailey Branson-Potts, Tribune reporter
April 13, 2011
Jacob Ernst, an architecture student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, won’t soon forget the severed power lines he saw in Haiti in January.
“Occasionally, you’ll see someone actively cutting down a power line to take the electricity,” Ernst said. “There are a lot of problems with people needing electricity, but it’s in very short supply.”
The electricity shortage in Haiti is the catalyst for a project-based class at IIT in which the 11 students are helping design inexpensive, solar-powered chargers for donated laptops in Haitian primary schools.
The interdisciplinary class, Developing Technology to Transform Education Throughout Haiti, is led by Laura Hosman, an assistant professor of political science, who studies the introduction of technology in developing nations. It is being taught for the second semester through IIT’s Interprofessional Projects Program.
In 2008, the Haitian government received a donation of more than 10,000 laptops from One Laptop Per Child, an international nonprofit that distributes small, rugged laptops to poor schoolchildren in developing countries. The laptops were given through a One Laptop Per Child promotion called Give One, Get One, in which donors could pay $399 for two of the low-powered laptops and donate one or both, Hosman said.
But in Haiti, there was a large obstacle to the donations’ success: More than 90 percent of the country’s primary schools do not have electricity, which is required for charging the laptops.
“There are so many issues and problems with bringing pieces of technology into the developing world, when it’s actually an environment that we are taking for granted,” Hosman said.
Laptops were distributed in 2009 to some of the few schools that were on or near the country’s power grid, Guy Serge Pompilus, the Haitian Ministry of Education’s coordinator of the country’s One Laptop Per Child project, wrote in an email.
Students had access to the laptops for a few months before the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the country.
The students were “immediately passionate” about the laptops, Pompilus wrote.
“They just started to experiment with the laptops,” he wrote, “and they, most of the time, outperformed the teacher in mastering the laptops.”
But the earthquake made the schools’ electricity sporadic and unreliable, Pompilus wrote.
Schools might receive a few hours of electricity each day, but it might come in the middle of the night when no one is present, Hosman said.
The unpredictability has left “thousands of laptops out there that used to have a way to charge and no longer do,” Hosman said.
One Laptop Per Child’s involvement in donations usually ends when the laptops get into the recipient countries, said Bruce Baikie, president and chief executive officer of Green WiFi, a nonprofit that provides solar-powered wireless Internet to developing countries.
“The issues of getting Internet connectivity and power are for the host countries to work out,” said Baikie, who has been a technical adviser to the IIT class.
That’s where the IIT project comes in.
Pompilus approached Baikie in 2009 at a One Laptop Per Child conference in Rwanda, where they began brainstorming how to use solar power to charge the laptops in Haiti. Baikie took the idea to Hosman, who pitched the idea for the class to IIT.
The IIT students, working with Baikie, have completed a design for an inexpensive system that will use solar panels connected to batteries and a charge controller to create a direct-current-only charge for the laptop batteries.
“Right now, solar seems to be the most dependable power source from a long-life standpoint,” Baikie said. “And Haiti has plenty of sunshine.”
The systems will be able to last for 15 to 20 years with little maintenance, he said.
The IIT group plans to return to Lascahobas, Haiti, in May to install solar power systems in two elementary schools that will charge hundreds of laptops.
The class is trying to raise $37,000 to fund travel and the implementation, Hosman said. So far, it has raised about $6,500.
If the class does not raise enough money, students will continue fundraising with the hopes of installing the systems in the fall, Hosman said.
Ernst — who went on a site-assessment trip to Haiti in January — believes in the project because the IIT group will be working with Haitians, teaching them how to install and maintain the devices and giving lessons on solar energy, he said.
“A lot of the fixes that people are doing are short-term fixes, whereas education can be more of a long-term, actually sustainable fix for the country,” Ernst said. “We’re not just going to drop off these solar panels and say, ‘Here’s your electricity; I hope it works for you.'”
The IIT students have partnered with engineering students at the State University of Haiti, who are creating French and Creole educational content for the laptops.
For Pompilus, it is essential that teachers be trained how to run the laptops and have access to relevant content, he wrote.
“We are using the laptops in an environment in which the people rely on rote learning,” he wrote. “The use of laptops runs against the whole culture of schooling and learning. It is a double revolution: the technology and the methods.”
The sight of classrooms in Haiti in January is what keeps Dhara Shah, a biomedical engineering student, invested in the project and often unable to “focus on school and focus on other things that don’t have to do with Haiti,” she said
In the Haitian classrooms Shah visited, there were not enough benches, tables or materials for the students, she said.
“This is so much more than just a solar project,” Shah said. “There are all these students out there who aren’t as privileged as us. We have electricity right now, we have clean water, we have access to sanitation, and they don’t.”
For more information about the project, go to www.iitempoweringhaiti.org