‘Like a Tide Coming In’
Emory has brought technology to a high school
in Kenya—and the school into the modern world
Right now, at Meru High School in Meru, Kenya, it is likely a teenage boy is sitting at a computer, looking through the window of the Internet onto some aspect of the world beyond the screen.
Perhaps he is downloading data about mummies in Egypt, current political events, African agriculture, or, if no teacher is watching, pop singer Beyonce. What matters is that he has access to a landscape of information he never dreamed of a year ago, thanks to efforts by a group of Emory volunteers to boost the school's academic and technological resources.
The initiative began more than two years ago as a memorial to Emory pediatrician and School of Medicine professor emeritus George Brumley, who died in a plane crash with his wife, Jean, and ten other family members while on an excursion in Kenya in July 2003.
Ron Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English, was in the area visiting Meru at the time of the crash, and he returned to Emory with a desire to respond to the tragedy. He and his wife, Keith, had a history with the place, having taught at the all-boys' Meru School from 1963 until 1965 as part of the Peace Corps predecessor, Teachers for East Africa. That fall, Schuchard approached then-Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement William H. Fox 79PhD about reaching out to the Meru School in honor of the Brumleys.
As it happened, an Emory computer lab was in the process of closing, and a plan quickly formed to donate its eighteen computers to the Meru School. In May 2004, the Schuchards and Fox, as well as IT specialist Ade Afonja, traveled to Kenya to get the computers up and running. A year later, after weekly conference calls between Emory and the Meru School, an expanded group made the trek for phase two of the project: to connect the recycled machines (including another twelve in addition to the original eighteen) to the World Wide Web.
"All our computers have multiple lives—they go from labs to kiosks to assorted other homes," says Alan Cattier, director of academic technologies, who helped iron out the considerable logistical wrinkles associated with connecting to the Internet in Kenya. "These just happen to have an alternate life in Kenya. Not bad for a computer."
Don Harris, formerly vice provost for information technology and chief information officer, described the experience in the campus newspaper Emory Report : "As the Emory team upgraded and tested the computing resources, the enthusiasm of the boys in the school was hard to contain," he wrote. "Many found reasons to walk by the lab's doors and windows to see what was happening. For those who had never seen a computer before the first arrived last year, the idea of receiving information from around the world on these same computers must have been hard to imagine."
The Meru School is now one of the best-connected institutions in Kenya, boasting thirty computers with Internet access. And the arrival of technology already has had an impact: after ranking below the top one hundred schools in the country, the school has risen to number forty-four in the last year.
'It is so wonderful to see the infusion of all this into their lives," Schuchard says. "We were amazed at what a difference can be made with recycled material. We are hoping to see the school in the top ten. That's become our goal."
Cattier and his team were also able to load the computers with educational software, including the Encyclopedia Britannica, a digital human atlas with 3-D animation of the human heart, and an astronomy program.
"The computers have become a touchpoint for all the energy and excitement at the school," Cattier says. "The amazing thing was seeing how quickly the Internet was meaningful for the faculty. Within twenty minutes of having the link established, we had faculty who were looking up health issues such as malaria in Kenya on the CDC Web site. You're kind of sitting there, thinking, what will this mean to them, and then you instantly see the connection."
In addition to the computers and software, the Emory team took discarded equipment from chemistry and physics labs, including microscopes and recent textbooks. Schuchard also collected athletic shoes in a donation barrel at the Woodruff Physical Education Center—a stroke of genius, considering he would be visiting high-school boys.
"Even on short notice, we got thirty-six pairs," says Schuchard, who helped build the school's first basketball court in 1963—the one the boys play on to this day. "The boys were so thrilled. They gave us a demonstration of a basketball game wearing shoes for the first time. Last year, they won their regional basketball title, but they played either in flip-flops or barefoot."
Plans already are underway for phase three of the Meru School project, when a larger Emory contingent will travel to Kenya to continue educating the faculty and students about their new technology resources. But Schuchard envisions a sustained and even more comprehensive effort that will benefit both the Meru School and Emory as well, with regular summer and spring break trips for students, faculty, and staff.
"They will be able to learn hands-on how to help developing countries," Schuchard says. "It's just so exciting to see the school coming into the modern world. They had almost nothing, so it's all lifting them like a tide coming in."—P.P.P.