Non-profit launches solar-powered lab and student archivist project in Tanzania

Smallbean, which encourages reuse of excess personal electronics, is launching solar-powered computer labs in schools in Tanzania and Massachusetts.

Boston area non-profit Smallbean plans to flip the switch this week on its first solar-powered computer lab in Kwala, Tanzania.

Smallbean will be working with hand-selected students there to create an ongoing Citizen Archivist Project, through which high-school students will be encouraged to chronicle the lives of members of their community through digital audio recording and still photographs. On Jan. 27, the Smallbean team will travel to Kwala, where it will teach students and teachers how to use the computers and collect information for the archives. Someone has been appointed within the pilot school to keep tabs on things as the project unfolds.

The organization is also working with another community activist organization, Citizen Schools, to create a parallel program in Brighton, Mass., that will launch on Feb. 3.

Sean Hewens, executive director for Smallbeans, says the African lab will include 10 refurbished Dell Netbooks, which were chosen not only for their price ($229-ish) but for the low-power consumption credentials. The students will use digital cameras and iPods that can be used as recording devices to capture the oral histories. All of these gadgets will be powered courtesy of about a half-dozen solar panels and something called the Solar Suitcase (check out this video), which can charge up to five of the netbooks simultaneously using DC adapters. The electricity in the African school is fairly unreliable, thus the solar link.

The students participating in the first phase of the African launch will be hand-picked for their ability to speak English as well as the likelihood that they can learn to use the technology quickly, says Hewens. The archivist project in both Tanzania and in Brighton, Mass., encourages students to collect oral histories -- essentially helping them learn more about their own and other cultures. Here's an example of an interview. Over time, the idea is that the concept will be incorporated into the school's regular curriculum in Tanzania. In Brighton, where the program will be part of the after-school programming encouraged by Citizen Schools, the long-term strategy is less definitive.

As to how much the two schools will be able to interact: Right now, because of the state of Internet access in Tanzania (cast your mind back 8 or 9 years ago and you'll have a sense of the access speeds and bandwidth limits), interaction will probably be limited to email. But give things time, and a little teenage ingenuity on both sides of the world to help make the planet seem a little smaller.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com