(IAP ’12) Akansh Murthy ’13
It all started during my first semester at MIT when I was in the midst of indulging in the sundry resources at the Institute. I heard about the MIT Public Service Center (PSC), a group that funded sustainable and impactful service projects. On a whim, I submitted a grant proposal. In it, I detailed a plan to promote computer literacy in rural Bangalore, India. During my teenage years, I loved computers and avoided no chance to tinker and familiarize myself with computer hardware. I eventually built systems from scratch and learned how to troubleshoot multiple operating systems. In my proposal, I wanted to provide the same hands-on experience with computers to underprivileged students in India, while at the same time improving the learning environment with an interactive schooling experience. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Funded by a PSC grant, my initial journey to India was quite enlightening. I traveled to a government high school in Yelahanka, Bangalore. While there, I taught students about computer components, such as the central processing unit, the motherboard, the hard drive, and random access memory. Following the theoretical workshop, I hosted a practical session. Students inserted individual computer parts into a system that would be donated to the school as part of the project. It was really during this trip that the true motivations for my project surfaced.
First, students in government-sponsored schools received anything but a proper education. Schools received little to no funding and students were discouraged from using technology. The most advanced piece of technology was an ancient, 20th century computer that operated on its own accord. Secondly, the lack of an intellectually stimulating curriculum shocked me. Classes consisted of a teacher spouting out facts and students memorizing these details for some examination. The environment for healthy learning and interactive questioning did not exist and technology was simply non-existent in the classroom. Finally, the most surprising part was how quickly students grasped everything I taught them, especially when I involved computers, projectors, and digital presentations. This quick comprehension affirmed the fact that these students were bright but lacked the proper resources to further their education.
For the second trip, which was funded by a PSC fellowship and a Baker Memorial grant, I returned to the Yelahanka school. Collaborating with a non-profit organization at MIT, the House of Volunteers (HOV), and the Indian Institute of Science, I set up a HOV chapter in Bangalore. I also sought out an executive body of students and advisors that could report to me and maintain the chapter while I was in the US. Finally, with the help of students and the executive body, I set up an entire computer lab of eight newly assembled computers for the Yelahanka school. These computers were all connected via a server-client network and contained free educational software provided in part by HOV. Furthermore, I recorded exam scores for multiple grades and administered surveys so that I would have a quantitative basis and metric for the impact of computers and the educational software on the academic situation (supplementary materials to be attached later).
I am returning now for the third time courtesy of a PSC fellowship with some important goals. One, I would like to expand my project base to two new rural schools near the Bangalore area. Two, I want to check on the Yelahanka school and see how the computers have been integrated into the academic curriculum. Three, I aim to meet with various persons interested in cooperating with me to create a nonprofit organization dedicated to computer literacy.
I. Fieldwork Part One: The Two New Schools
The past two weeks, which have flown by, have proven to be very productive. I, along with my previous executive committee, completed site-work in both of the schools (Yerabahalli/Yaraballi [spelling variant] and Sangenahalli). I followed my model of theoretical sessions followed by practical workshops. At each school, I began by introducing the students to all the components inside a computer system. I, then, explained how computers are used in Western education (presentations, word-processing, Internet-browsing, computational models, etc.) and why a similar concept needs to be integrated into Indian school curricula. Finally, I allowed students to have a hands-on experience by allowing them to assemble components into a system that would be theirs (as a gift) to use.
We donated a full computer system (with an LCD monitor and the works) to each school, with plans to donate a full set of 9-10 computers with educational software to each school in the future. These two schools are located in very rural settings so it was quite an experience staying in villages and seeing the daily life. It was humbling, to say the least. But, I also realized that the impact of interactive, digital education would be much, much higher in these areas, especially earlier in the schooling process (middle school). It was amazing to see students, who had never touched a computer before, master the use of a mouse and keyboard within minutes. The enthusiasm of the students and their curiosity further sparked quite a bit of the motivation in our work.
While the Yelahanka school (in which I worked the last two years) had a separate room just for computers, none of these two schools have any such area. After discussing with some local engineers, I realized that I could make a huge impact by actually constructing a building for each school to be used as a computer lab. I am already going through blueprints and building plans that have been provided to me. Overall, this phase has been grueling but I am quite happy with what we have achieved thus far.
Direct Impact: Total # of students in Yerabahalli/Yaraballi school: 40+ from 1st grade to 7th grade. Total # of students in Sangenahalli school: 100+ from 1st to 7th grade. Students from nearby schools also attended our presentations and plan to frequent once a computer facility is developed.
II. Fieldwork Part Two: The Old School
This week, I returned to the Yelahanka school (in which I had worked for the past two years) to monitor its progress. I was pleased to see even more improvements this year (governmental funds have increased steadily for the past three years after I started my project in this school). The eight computers that we donated were all functional. There were some software problems that we fixed. Also, one of the computers had a chewed wire; we replaced its power supply.
1) The school had invested in glass windows to prevent mice and squirrels from getting into the computer room and chewing the electrical wires.
2) The school had bought an all-in-one printer/scanner/copier
3) The school had bought an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) and new tables for the computers
All the money for these products came from the government!
Following this, I recorded exam scores for the 9th and 10th graders to compare to the scores that I had recorded last year. I was happy to see that the averages change. However, I still need to perform some statistical analysis to really make sense of the data. In addition, I realized that I should have sampled a larger data and added a few more constraints to my “experiment.”
II. Fieldwork Part Three: The Nonprofit
For the final phase of my project this IAP, I did a lot of networking with various contacts in the Bangalore area. It was great to meet people of different backgrounds and hear the opinions of various seasoned professionals. By discussing with people who started up either companies or various organizations, I began to get a feel of how to approach my own idea. Apparently, NGO/nonprofit work in India has been gaining momentum in the recent years, with NGOs dominating the field since many governmental agencies hire NGOs to perform certain tasks. Additionally, all service-oriented organizations have to register with the Indian government to have a permit or license to solicit donations and I have built up a network for that as well. Just for my own sake, I met with a few web design companies so that I could begin the process of designing a website. I completed this portion of my project by drafting a host of legal documents and returning to the United States to review my progress with a few legal firms in the Boston area.
III. The Denouement
Achievements are aplenty. We successfully met our three goals:
1. Check status at Yelahanka school
2. Expand and replicate model in two new schools (Sangenhalli and Yerabahalli/Yaraballi)
3. Lay groundwork for nonprofit organization by networking and partnering with new people and organizations
In addition, I was invited to perform similar work in a different school by one of my new contacts, the principal of a nearby university and chairman of a computing center- Professor Mukundappa. So, we ended up impacting one more school than we had planned. Furthermore, I met with a software engineer and began developing a website for my initiative (UPDATE: It is almost finished. It will be live very soon).
Overall, this project has made me realize a few things.
1. One person can make a difference.
2. There is no use for judgment. Rather, it is wise to use that effort to promote improvement.
3. A sense of insignificance is nothing compared to the enthusiasm of one child.