Intel Education Service Corps, Bangladesh – Week 2Four Intel employees recently took on the task of introducing computers in two primary schools in a remote corner of Bangladesh. Working with our Save the Children USA partners over 9 hectic days (Oct. 14th.-22nd., 2009), we installed 60 Classmate PCs (CMPCs) donated by Intel’s World Ahead Program and provided basic computer training to the teachers and students. We were able to bring a spark of excitement and hope in the lives of a thousand students and their 19 teachers in a small town near the western border of Bangladesh, where electricity is undependable and many kids do not get three square meals a day. The four of us – Bob Banerjee, Surya Misra, Noor Chowdhury and Taslema Sultana – felt elated but apprehensive when we were chosen in mid-September to be on the Intel Education Service Corps (IESC) team, headed for Bangladesh in about 3 weeks. The recently-launched IESC is designed to be a short-term service & career development opportunity for a select group of Intel volunteers from around the world, deploying Intel-powered classmate PCs in an emerging market country in partnership with a non-governmental organization (NGO). Vaccinations, visas, travel arrangements, and coverage at work had to be arranged while we trained for this unique assignment, all while maintaining our regular work schedules. We would be fully immersed in local living conditions, not really sure what to expect while we worked hand-in-hand with Save the Children USA in Bangladesh. Arriving from 3 different US locations and India, we first met face to face as a team in our Dhaka hotel over breakfast on Oct. 14th., before spending the day at Save the Children USA’s Dhaka office to discuss the project and finalize our plans. Save the Children USA informed us that only 2 of every 3 kids entering 1st. grade will go on to 6th. grade in Bangladesh, and those that stay need only score 33% to pass. Our project was focused on helping Save the Children USA launch their pilot program, with the objectives of improving classroom scores and reducing dropout rates through the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in primary schools. After driving to Meherpur on Oct. 15th., we spent Friday, Oct. 16th. visiting Ujalpur and BM Model Primary Schools to set up the classmate PCs. We had envisioned working undisturbed in the deserted schools on the weekend holiday, but the teachers were all there, along with School Management Committee (SMC) officials and quite a few students, to witness the Intel and Save the Children teams set up the computers. The headmasters and teachers also agreed to come on Saturday, Oct. 17th., for initial training on computer basics. The 13 teachers from BM Model were joined by all 6 teachers from Ujalpur Primary Government School, arriving with kids in tow since there was no school on that Saturday. They sacrificed a holiday again, but were all agog at the prospect of their first encounter with computers. We started with games introducing the keyboard and the touchpad and mouse keys, and even Mohammed Abdul Hashem – the headmaster of BM Model who appeared somewhat formal and aloof on Friday – lost himself in bursting virtual balloons along with his colleagues. After a few more games and lunch, we demonstrated the e-learning classroom management software. We truly broke the ice with the teachers when we “silenced” headmaster Md. Hashem’s classmate PC for not paying attention in class! “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are” – we welcomed the kids to class the next day, Oct. 18th., with the nursery rhyme playing in the background. While many were shy, they couldn’t wait to explore their very first computer. They took to the classmate PC like fish to water, most graduating from the keyboard and mouse games to solving simple puzzles and using the touchpad to “Paint.” Two or three students had to share one classmate PC and each session was only an hour long – so that almost all the students of the two schools could participate. The teachers didn’t want to make any of the kids feel left out by selecting a sample of each class for these sessions. Crowds of excited students and community members watched the proceedings from outside the open windows. We ended up introducing more than 850 students to the Intel-powered classmate PC over 3 days, covering all 2nd. through 5th. graders, and some 1st. graders, in both schools. While the four of us and our Save the Children USA partners got the initial classes going, the teachers gained confidence as the days wore on and were fully engaged in guiding their students by the end of the second day of student training. The classes were noisy, but the teachers reveled in their ability to exercise control by “silencing” all the classmate PCs at once from the teacher PC to end a session. On the 2nd. day, Taslema was demonstrating mouse control using the touch pad – left, right, up, down – left, right, up, down – but one kid seemed to be trying hard but not getting it. It turned out that he was visually impaired and couldn’t see the screen properly, although he kept trying. She just didn’t know what to do and moved on to the next student as many others were waiting for help. Bob came upon him a few minutes later and tried to help him – not knowing the situation – until the student blurted out that he had trouble seeing the screen. Bob consulted the teacher and was told that he had limited eyesight, and she had to guide him out of the class, with tears in his eyes since he could not see the screen well enough to play any of the games. We were broken-hearted, wishing we could say or do something to make him feel better. Unfortunately, facilities for disabled kids are extremely limited in Bangladesh, and often their best hope is to attend school like any other kid if the school permits it. Save the Children USA, which is also introducing School Health and Nutrition programs in primary schools in Bangladesh, has committed to following up with the student to take whatever measures are possible to mitigate his disability and ensure he remains in school. On the day before our last day in Meherpur, the teachers at Ujalpur treated us to lunch. They cooked up a feast from scratch in a makeshift outdoor kitchen at the back of the school, and true to Bengali tradition, insisted that we eat first before they had their own lunch. The teachers of BM Model school wanted to prepare lunch for us on the final day, but we had to dissuade them due to time constraints. On the day-long drive heading back to Dhaka on Oct. 21st., with the kids’ refrain “Sir/Madam, can you show us another game?” still buzzing in our ears, we felt that we had succeeded in igniting tremendous interest at both schools and generating buzz in the community. We had our de-briefing session with Save the Children USA in their Dhaka office on Oct. 22nd., recommending that Save the Children USA designate a trainer to work with the teachers every week to keep the momentum alive, leading up to a master training session they are planning for December 2009. They can utilize off-the-shelf mathematics and English software, and downloaded content from sites like skoool.org, to supplement the school curriculum. We are happy to have connected with the teachers, many of whom remarked that our patient, caring and friendly attitude made the difference for them in overcoming their fear of technology. We found that even for the kids, language was not a barrier in learning computer basics. The fact that all of our software had an English interface didn’t stand in the way, and in fact, learning about computers may just be the incentive needed to promote English training for the kids. In a brief span of working together for ten intense days, the four of us who have never met each other before have started to feel like members of a family. Just after the team was formed a month ago, we started to plan as a team, and after arriving in Bangladesh, we have faced issues together, watched the day’s photos and videos while sipping tea in the evening, and planned the next day’s activities until we were sleepy. We will miss each other and may never meet again, but now we have a vested interest in the success of a thousand students and their two schools in a bold pilot to usher in ICT-driven curricula in primary schools in Bangladesh. While we know that our Save the Children USA partners (Margarita, Tanvir, Sajol, Sushanto, and Kabir) are as passionate and motivated as we are, we would all love to go back in a year to witness how the seed we planted has taken root and started flourishing.
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