By Clark Curtis
Spring break for many college students conjures up images of warm sandy beaches and the roar of the waves. However that wasn’t the case this year for 10 students and faculty members from UNC Charlotte’s College of Computing and Informatics. They had their sights set on three rural schools in northern Haiti as they embarked on a volunteer effort to share their computer expertise with teachers and mentors of Haitian girls.
“This all came about as part of a collaboration with Charlotte-headquartered Mothering Across Continents, through which volunteer ‘catalysts’ receive consulting, coaching and mentoring to develop dream projects that help raise tomorrow’s leaders,” said Tiffany Barnes, associate professor in the department of computer science (pictured on the left, opposite).
“MAC, in partnership with Hands for Haiti received a grant from Waveplace Foundation, to provide 25 XO laptop computers to each of the three schools, along with mentoring and educational software,” she continued. “The missing element was the computer training, which made this a perfect fit for us and an incredible opportunity for international outreach.”
Participants are part of the Students & Technology in Academia, Research & Service Leadership Corps, a STARS Alliance program that develops leaders to impact the world through computing. Led by the College of Computing and Informatics, STARS is a national consortium of 31 colleges and universities dedicated to preparing a larger, more diverse computing workforce for the 21st century.
Barnes said students worked with the female mentors to teach them how to use the laptops and “Scratch,” a programming language developed at MIT. The drag and drop technology allows the user to create colorful games.
In this instance, the women how to develop interactive games or presentations that address real world problems in the area, Barnes said. Such examples include energy, or lack there of, pollution in the river due to the lack of bathrooms or finding the nearest doctor.
“If we could get everyone, be it the mentors or students, telling stories via their laptops to others in the community about how things are and the need for change, then it will hopefully make everyone come together and find solutions to the problems,” Barnes noted. “We specifically targeted young women for the training as studies show in developing countries girls are much more likely to remain in the community and give back to others.”
For STARS student Nick Blanchard, the experience was life changing. He was approached by one of the female mentors and asked if he would create a program that could teach them how to speak English, he said.
“With the help of a fellow student from the college we were able to create a working prototype in about 20 minutes,” said Blanchard. “It then took four of us about 30 hours to create a program with 75 words and phrases to teach English. Not only could you see the word but hear it.
Blanchard said the gratitude and appreciation the Haitians expressed despite their many hardships was overwhelming. His plan is to develop his own nonprofit and continue the effort.
“It was exhilarating for me to see the personal development of the STARS students and the mentors,”
Barnes said. “I think this kind of work is extremely important because it makes you feel like you are making a difference. It’s a way of giving back whether it is giving back as computing people or (through) other diverse skill sets. For me, taking your advantage and giving back to the community is very important.”
Clark Curtis is director of communications for the College of Computing and Informatics.