Hackaday Prize Entry: Worldwide Educational Infrastructure

The future of education is STEM, and for the next generation to be fitter, happier, and more productive, classrooms around the world must start teaching programming, computer engineering, science, maths, and electronics to grade school students. In industrialized countries, this isn’t a problem: they have enough money for iPads, Chromebooks, and a fast Internet connection. For developing economies? That problem is a little harder to solve. Children in these countries go to school, but there are no racks of iPads, no computers, and even electricity isn’t a given. To solve this problem, [Eric] has created a portable classroom for his entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize.

Classrooms don’t need much, but the best education will invariably need computers and the Internet. Simply by the virtue of Wikipedia, a connection to the Internet multiplies the efforts of any teacher, and is perhaps the best investment anyone can make in the education of a child. This was the idea behind the One Laptop Per Child project a decade ago, but since then, ARM boards running Linux have become incredibly cheap, and we’re getting to a point where cheap Internet everywhere is a real possibility.

To build this portable classroom, [Eric] is relying on the Raspberry Pi. Yes, there are cheaper options, but the Pi is good enough. A connection to online resources is required, and for that [Eric] is turning to the Outernet. It’s a system that will broadcast educational material down from orbit, using ground stations made from cheap and portable KU band satellite dishes and cheap receivers.

When it comes to educational resources for very rural communities, the options are limited. With [Eric]’s project, the possibilities for educating students on the basics of living in the modern world become much easier, and makes for a great entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize.

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26 thoughts on “Hackaday Prize Entry: Worldwide Educational Infrastructure

    1. I dunno… there’s a lot of quality education available on the internet. Kahn academy and edX come to mind.

      Specifically, if a school could access the internet, students could view Kahn academy videos and get a lot out of them. His explanations are simple, and work from the ground up. You can get the equivalent of the first 2 years of a BS degree just by watching Kahn.

      Dr. Sugata Mitra did an experiment where a computer was made available to street kids in India (link below). He found that kids are naturally inquisitive, and would learn on their own with no supervision if given the chance.

      http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/Beginnings.html

      And anyone who has raised children know that they soak up knowledge like a sponge. They do it at their own pace and on their own schedule, but they are ravenous consumers of knowledge. Home schooling works by just giving your child the proper materials and letting them learn at their own pace. (And this seems to work better than the American structured public school system.)

      This project is well-intentioned, meets a current need, and is entirely feasible. The only uncertainty is the team’s ability to pull it off.

      This would be a strong Hackaday prize entry.

  1. The Outernet guys repeat the same error that nearly all sites regarding DVB on Linux do.
    They mention DVB-S/T/C receivers in their compatibility list only by their name, not by their version.
    Many, if not most of the manufacturers are known to change their chipsets frequently, making it a game of chance buying one for Linux.
    I’ve been in that game, and I won’t do it again. I just don’t have the time for gambling.

    1. Indeed the idea that education will solve, or even make significant inroads into Third World problems overly optimistic. Part of the failure is that ‘education’ in this context is often little more than a Trojan Horse for propagandizing Western values and culture (Wikipedia as a teaching multiplier indeed) which are rarely a good fit in these places. At best it creates an elite that is willing to exploit their own countrymen with a rapacity that would make a eighteenth century European mercantilist blush, or at worst it foments wide dissatisfaction that leads to continuous, and violent political unrest. Even when these are not the immediate consequences, however, there is still a wiff of White Man’s Burden about these projects that I find distasteful.

      1. “however, there is still a wiff of White Man’s Burden about these projects that I find distasteful.”

        Habitat for humanity would be a lot more efficient with professional carpenters.

    2. But they’ve been working on that for decades. Why not try some other path? It can’t be more expensive than the things that didn’t work before.

      I didn’t suffer as a kid, but I never had enough money for books and hobby pursuits. Not having money doesn’t make people “dumb”, though it seems like that’s a common perception. Imagine the capable kids that go nowhere because the right resources aren’t there? That’s not just an “African problem”, kids on reservations in North America can be in the same place.

      Maybe they can solve things, certainly they can provide an internal perspective instead of outsiders “knowing” what needs fixing. But that won’t happen unless their “hackers” have access to resources, some of which is information. I saw a story a couple of years ago about a native woman who learned to make traditional saddles by taking one apart, and “making mistakes”. It’s patronizing to assume that “lessers” need to be spoonfed, and can’t solve their own problems.

      One luxury we have here is all the junk. I did better pulling parts out of junked equipment than buying parts at full price, and I’m still a scrounger 45 years later. If you don’t have wealth to buy that stuff, and discard it, the kids in poverty don’t have access to the junk. Poor countries, or living on an isolated reservation means not having access to the junk that can be put to other uses.

      Michael

  2. Indeed. We see the potential of what we can achieve with technology education and then think the whole world will benefit if we just spread that. Letting kids know what else is available out in the world is good, but this doesn’t solve local problems. Access to water, having to live near industrial polluters, and corruption are probably bigger problems for most people. Yea that’s great kid, you can code in C and Python. Too bad there is not much demand for jobs with those skills in your country. I don’t wish them any harm, maby this project is meeting an underserved need. The world does need people trying to help unstack the deck against other people. I just hope they have looked the problem over well enough.

    1. That rarely happens. Back in the late Fifties/early Sixties well-meaning charities were digging wells all over Sub-Saharan Africa in the belief that access to lots of clear water would improve the lot of those living in the region. As it happens limited water was the only thing keeping the area’s herding cultures from increasing the number of cattle they had at any one time and with that limit removed, grew their numbers such that the plants there animals grazed on could not recover fast enough, leading to destroyed pastures, and a full collapse of the balance that had existed there for millennia. Nowhere does the Law of Unintended Consequences bite harder than when a dominant culture tries to ‘help’ one it considers inferior.

      1. There are sat photos of the northern border of the grazing lands and then the wells become visible by the dead regions around them then the desert region moves steadily south pushing the people into conflict. Is was a big Peace Corp project IIRC. And very predictable and stupid.

          1. Yes, I recall some analysis. The optimistic felt it could have worked if the water were spread out more in some way. The way it was done made artificial watering holes and naturally the vegetation vanished were the animals gathered – at the water. The the bare region spread outward in a ring. The rings eventually merged. The thing is you could see it happening and they kept on building. I was in the age group of the draft lottery in the US for Vietnam (not that Vietnam was any more dangerous than driving cars for that age group, but the news people made it sound like a death sentence. Of course, if you were driving a car in Vietnam…..). Many college seniors who were losing education deferments and had low lottery numbers joined the Peace Corp and wound up in Africa. Plenty of them were physicists and engineers. I got a lot of mail with interesting stories of Peace Corp adventures and FUBAR/SNAFU projects. Full disclosure, I had a lottery number of 6 and went for Naval aviation.

  3. Clean water is the most important. Enyone who had to carry water from a well for cooking/drinking will attest to that. Electricity already is a luxury that is nice to have. Having said that, every effort in the direction of improvement is good, including this one.

  4. It is a ‘feel good’ project for sure. I agree with some above comments that this is a cart before horse. It seems like a sunny place, so why not have solar energy and distillation tanks? Not that their problems are any of my business. They will develop at the rate at which their society allows. Best of luck to us all.

  5. Nice Radiohead reference.

    A very admirable cause, and hopefully, these kids grow up learning to think rationally, rather than towing the line of hatred and genocide that their parents were raised with. Learning can help one discover new perspectives, and that may help these kids learn to view their sociopolitical problems from the perspectives of all sides, and hopefully be more willing to compromise.

  6. “The future of education is STEM” should be ‘The future of education funding is STEM”. This is ludicrous. How many kids ever take calculus? The future should be literacy, numeracy, history, and law – property and business law, so people understand the world they are in and how to negotiate it wisely. (In places without real law, like China, substitute bribery and how to get the local police to tell you who you can hire to have someone beat up if they rip you off, and how to dodge a party member’s relative who is trying to collect “taxes” from your business.)

    A more ambitious and useful goal is a universal education motivator – powered by a Pi? Maybe it would set a better example if it used a device from a real company instead of a charity? (Do I sound grumpier today? I taught high school physics and math in the U.S. and the curriculum designed by the professionals is dismal, especially the Math. Truly pitiful. These bright eyed tales of educational marvels have been around forever. Result? U.S. college kids think you can get everything for free if you just tax the “rich”. Will STEM change that? There is a book called The Math of Money that should be required reading.)

  7. Apparently this blog post is a trap for cynics, looking at the comics. Yes, interfere with caution. Yes, STEM may not be the most directly useful thing that could be taught to these kids.

    But reluctance to try something new for the sole purpose of helping our fellow earthlings – why the heck not? Does anyone really see alterior motives here? White man’s burden my skinny white butt. Go volunteer and stop whining about me and the other “deadbeat” millennials.

    1. First off the general arrogance of the assumption that “these people” need your help is breathtaking and yes it is an echo of the sort of White man’s burden thinking that is used to justify interference in other countries, that somehow always seems to leave them worse off that before. The fact is that if you are driven to help your fellow earthlings there is much to do in your own backyard.

      1. “These kids” namely, the group of people that this project aims to assist, if that wasn’t clear enough. No one is saying ‘help’ is ‘needed’. The perspective that they do not stand to benefit is as subjective and arbitrary as the opposite perspective.
        If you wish to insist that countries or ethnic groups with resources offering their resources to other groups who don’t have resources, I won’t argue, that’s up to you. However there are countless international charities working selflessly every day, I wouldn’t minimize that.
        Having worked on successful aquaponics projects that were carried by foot through the mountains of South America at no cost to impoverished and hungry villages…I think I am validated enough in my opinions.
        This isn’t turn of the century Rudyard Kipling bull shit this is people doing amazing things for each other right now.

        1. Don’t let your halo get so tight it cuts off the flow of blood to your brain. First I suspect that your project had no real idea what the global impact on would be the area both on the people and the environment, and probably won’t for a good long time and by then the damage will be done. Even if this is not the case in this instance, the fact remains that a depressing number of these initiatives DO have long-term negative consequences. Secondly, unless some global effort is made to overhaul a local economy outright, it is unlikely that such a project will deliver the sort of long term benefits you imagine it will. I know this because the record, since the Fifties when this sort of thing came in vogue, is dismal, and your hairshirt ‘validation’ simply can’t overcome the evidence from history.

          It’s not just in the Third World. When the cod fishery collapsed on the East coast in the mid Nineties, I saw an item on television about retraining the people that lost their jobs by teaching them how to code. These are people in their forties, that have fished or worked in packing plants since they were twelve, gathered in from Newfoundland and Labrador’s outports being taught HTML like they were going to get employed in this field. This was government stupidity, but it amounts to the same thing.

          Real solutions to deeply entrenched poverty, systemic economic failure, and populations outgrowing the carrying capacity of a region, cannot be solved by little charitable projects, poorly thought out, and executed as uncoordinated, isolated efforts and more to the point, can make matters worse..

      2. But it isn’t new. One Laptop Per Child = 100 laptops for local warlord. Who couldn’t see that coming? The schools become a convenient place to kidnap a bunch of child labor in one stop. There are big cultural barriers to success and culture is stronger than the will to live. The changes can come slow or fast and predicting what will help is a hobby for arrogant John Kerry types. If you could determine why what we call Western Culture had a nearly steady increase in knowledge and standard of living for 3000 years or more you would have made a major contribution. Other cultures have been making stone arrow heads and practicing complicated ceremonies of bathing and fasting, etc. to increase their spirit power in the same way for 10,000 years. What gives?

        1. “Other cultures have been making stone arrow heads and practicing complicated ceremonies of bathing and fasting, etc. to increase their spirit power in the same way for 10,000 years. What gives?”

          They survived for 10000 years.

          That’s not failure, FYI.

          1. A lot of them vanished and left 10,000 years of arrow heads here and there. Plus those that still exist had no written language and the history has to be deduced from archeology and oral histories that may or may not have been contaminated by early explorers from other areas. But if that is your definition of success, why bother with tech?

          2. So since these ‘primitive’ cultures don’t hold important those things my ‘advanced’ culture does, then I have a duty to drag them into the modern world.

  8. I’ve talked with a number of people who saw first-hand the uselessness of many well-meaning projects by NGO’s who didn’t understand that a (for example) water system that depends on tools/resources/skills that can’t be locally sourced means that when it breaks down, the locals will, at the very least be back where they started. If it keeps running long enough before it fails, the ability to return to the ‘old ways’ can deteriorate enough that they end up worse off. The technology that is added to the local system needs to be very carefully considered before being deployed, and often doesn’t seem to be. OTOH, there are a number of things that can be taught that change how things are done very little, yet have a huge positive impact. I’ve gathered a number of such methods in a blog post I did a while ago, if you care to take a look. Some, like the ceramic water filter and safe, efficient cooking/heating methods, literally require no tools whatsoever, only the ability to create a hot fire.

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