April 15, 2009 A mobile computer classroom powered by solar panels atop a modified SUV is providing computer training to 100 students a day in the east African country of Uganda. The Maendeleo Foundation, which runs the Mobile Solar Computer Classrooms (MSCC), hopes the project will help to launch a local computer services industry, creating jobs by outsourcing the new computer skills, boost the local economy and alleviate poverty.

Each day, the modified Toyota RAV4 is carefully packed with the Mobile Solar Computer Classroom, before setting out to visit rural schools around Uganda. At each destination, the RAV4 is unloaded. Out come three 65 Watt solar panels, a 200 mA battery, 15 Intel Classmate PC laptop computers, a 3m by 3m foldable tent, five folding tables, 10 folding chairs as well as two computer teachers. Voila, an instant classroom!

The solar panels are placed on the roof of the vehicle – which can be located up to 20 meters from the tented classroom – and are connected to a battery that powers the robust Intel Classmate PC laptops. Students and local teachers work from self-paced, multilingual learning software developed by the foundation. The software teaches students a range of skills, from basic keyboard and mouse functions through to working with Microsoft Office applications and using the internet.

The plan is to give students enough knowledge to explore further on their own. Some of the students may be lucky enough to take up computer-related study at university or college, while others who show promise may be given computer service jobs by the foundation’s partner companies, such as Essential Skills Development.

The program aims to show children that computers are within their reach and can offer them a brighter future, but it's a huge task with the foundation eager to help more children. The project recently won $100,000 in the Intel INSPIRE•EMPOWER Challenge, which the foundation plans to put towards a similar mobile classroom in Rwanda.

The Intel INSPIRE•EMPOWER Challenge aims to reward communities that use technology to address problems in education, health care, economic development and the environment. Another winner of the competition is the CellScope.

Karen Sprey

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