Learning by Helping: Students Bring Technology to Tanzania Schools

Posted on: April 2, 2015

Tanzania study abroad program

Long before Michigan State University adopted the "Who Will? Spartans Will" brand, a group of MSU students showed their will – and ingenuity – by building an Internet-enabled, solar-powered computer system. They then took that system to a remote village in the Rift Valley of northern Tanzania and installed it in an elementary school, giving students and teachers access to the vast educational resources and information of the Internet in a place that lacked not only computers, but the electricity to power them.

Unlike many other international projects, this was not a one-time deal. MSU students, primarily from the College of Communication Arts and Sciences and College of Engineering, have returned every year to bring educational technology to that developing part of the world. The project now encompasses three elementary schools and two secondary schools.

A few years ago, the project became an annual MSU service-learning study abroad program open to students from all majors. The Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) in Tanzania study abroad gives MSU students an opportunity to design and implement real-world solutions to improve the learning experience for African students in Tanzania's Rift Valley.

Each year, the program takes on one big project. Last year's project was to design and install a video conferencing system between the two secondary schools.

Tanzania study abroad main 2"The reason we developed a video conferencing system and why the Tanzanians are so excited about it is because there is a severe teacher shortage in Tanzania, especially for more advanced subjects like physics. With this system, one teacher can teach in two schools at the same time," said Jennifer Olson, Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Information, who leads the program along with Erik Goodman, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

MSU students are making a big difference for the teachers and students at these schools. At the same time, they also come away with many once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

"Our students go to a country halfway around the world that has a completely different culture and see that they are able to communicate with people and install or complete the project as planned," Olson said. "They walk away with a better understanding of different cultures and see how they can work in that culture and how they can contribute."

Linlin Liang, a graduate student in the Department of Media and Information who participated in last year's study abroad, worked on a survey to help gauge program progress and to make future improvements.

"Tanzania is a beautiful country with friendly people, nothing like the stereotypes about the African continent," Liang said. "Students are eager to learn more and access educational materials. Meanwhile, teachers are attempting to improve their teaching skills and gain more knowledge by using computers. The project helped me to be more sensitive to cultural environments and appreciate more about multiculturalism."

eastafricaThis year's program, which runs from May 19 to June 17, will work with the teachers on using the video conferencing system.

"We'll be teaching them how to record their lessons to use in other classrooms and in other schools," Olson said. "It should be a big help in reducing the lack of teachers."

The project is funded in part by corporate partners with start-up funding from MSU. However, to continue the program additional funding is needed.

Private Funds Help Launch Program

When the project first began, Lenovo, a computer manufacturing company, wanted to sponsor a senior capstone design team in electrical and computer engineering to work on technology for creating cost-effective, solar-powered computers for a developing country.

Goodman, who was teaching the electrical and computer engineering capstone course at the time, teamed up with Olson, whose research is in communication technology in Africa, and the idea for a senior capstone design project was approved.

"When we first went to this village and installed the computers, the teachers had never used computers," Olson said. "They were afraid to touch them and wouldn't let the students touch them for fear they would break them.

"Now the teachers are much more familiar with computers. They have email and Facebook accounts and are using computers in their teaching. There also are computer clubs for students, many of whom can speak knowledgeably about using computers and the info that is available."

Tanzania study abroad main 3The program started in 2008 with MSU students designing an innovative, multi-seat computer system and a solar power system to run it. Meanwhile, Olson and Goodman went to Tanzania searching for a site to install the system. Olson's familiarity with the country helped in finding a town with appropriate housing for MSU students and the perfect rural primary school. The town selected was Mto wa Mbu, southwest of Mount Kilimanjaro.

MSU students and professors then traveled to Tanzania and were joined by faculty members and electrical engineering students from Tanzania's University of Dar es Salaam. The group worked from dawn to dusk to assemble, install and test the system in the school – the first primary school in Tanzania to have Internet access.

The team was undaunted by the lack of electricity, the extreme heat and dust, many large and small critters chewing on wires and parts, and excited users who had never touched a computer before.

In the end, the computer system the students designed turned into a strong, rugged system that uses little power. It has forever changed the lives of the Tanzanian students and teachers.

"My experiences in Tanzania both as an engineer-in-training and as a young man are immeasurable," said Eric Tarkleson (B.S. '09, M.S. '13 Electrical Engineering), who went with the first group of students in 2008 and returned 11 times since then as part of the project. "Traveling to a place like Tanzania as an American for the first time shifts one's perspective. My views and ideas are different because of my travels and experiences there."

In addition to the expansion of computer systems, the project has expanded in other ways. A Tanzanian, who is a computer specialist, now keeps things running all year long and does training and repairs when needed. This regular maintenance is vital to the project.

More Funding Needed

Organizers of the long-running project are now raising additional funds to help keep the program going.

Tanzania study abroad main 5"We have sought grants working with Tanzanian partners to expand the program, but so far we have not been successful," Goodman said. "We need support to pay our Tanzanian computer expert who keep the system running when we are not there and to pay bills from our Internet provider."

In addition to the yearly student trip to Tanzania, Goodman and Olson make a second trip to Tanzania each year to set up the next year's program. Also, rental vehicles are needed to transport MSU students and equipment to the remote villages.

For more information on ways to donate to the project, contact Olson at olsonjj@msu.edu; Goodman at goodman@egr.msu.edu or 517-355-6453; or go to the "Tanzania Service Learning Project for Computers in Schools" web page.

(Jane DePriest and the College of Engineering contributed to this story. See a similar article, "Learning by helping: MSU students engineer solutions in Africa," on the College of Engineering website.)

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