Lending a helping hand

With 20 computer labs spread across campus, laptops and PCs in every dorm room and the latest technology for sale right across the highway, few Sam Houston State students know what it’s like to live without daily computer access.

But for thousands of elementary school students across the world, getting their hands on up-to-date technology is a constant struggle and often an impossible goal.

Dr. Charles Heath, a professor in the SHSU History Department, recognized this need after speaking with his fianc, Juana, who teaches in a rural school in Oaxaca, Mexico. The pair decided to organize a fundraiser to buy computers for the disadvantaged students through the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization.

“In the fall of 2007, my classes did a fundraiser for the One Laptop Per Child organization,” Heath said. “It is a foundation that is designed to create a low-cost laptop for use in developing countries. My classes, along with [the classes of] two other history professors, ended up with enough money for two laptops, and with the ‘buy one get one’ deal, that meant we got four,” Heath said.

According to its website, the mission of OLPC is “to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.”

The first two laptops were distributed by OLPC, and Heath and the Sam Houston State students were given the final two laptops to hand out on their own. With Juana teaching in the rural village of Oaxaca, the choice was clear.

“This is a rural village Mexican school,” Heath said. “They may have a few computers for the older students, but they didn’t have any for the first grade or pre-school students.”

Heath, who teaches Contemporary Latin American History, said the laptops his classes donated are specially designed to function in rural, developing societies with features that are tailored specifically to the needs of poor children who may not have much prior experience with technology.

“Some of them do have limited access because the school is a Ford Foundation school, so they have the benefit of a little more money,” Heath said. “The computers are designed to introduce the students to technology. They are designed to be used with a generator; they don’t need to be connected to a grid so if the power goes out they can still use them. They’re also designed for bright equatorial sunlight, unlike maybe your laptop where if it’s too bright you can’t see the screen. They were designed with these needs in mind.”

The Ford Foundation, which built the school where Heath’s computers were donated, participates in development projects throughout the world and also helps to build schools in poorer nations.

By donating their time and money to buying the laptops, the history students in Heath’s class earned the opportunity to put faces to the stories they learn about in the classroom, and not just picking up the material to forget it a few months later.

Thanks to the generosity of Heath and his students, Mexican children now have the opportunity to develop technological skills faster than they may have otherwise.

“Hopefully, they’ll gain computer experience at an even earlier age and in a more interactive, less rigid way,” Heath said.

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