Sereolipi 2.0 (The Computer Lab)

It is hard to describe what an achievement this is, a fully functional and internet-connected computer lab in the middle of the Kenyan bush. The school's principal calls it, "leapfrogging the industrial age." From most places throughout town, it looks like a mirage. How does it happen?

One answer is: Sereolipi's school (especially its Principal and village chief) has been wonderfully forward thinking and open to change. Another is: Jane makes great introductions.

Sereolipi's computer lab, which launched in January of 2006, is the product of an extraordinary collaboration.

Enter Whitney Tilson (T2 Partners LLC / Tilson Mutual Funds / Teach for America) and Bill Ackman (Pershing Square Capital Fund). These two got together around a big idea that is followed by a big question. The idea: to bring the internet and computers to Sereolipi, a place without electricity, phone lines or cellular reception. The question: what happens next?

A computer lab was built. A solar panel was installed. So was a satellite dish. Over 30 laptop computers were donated through Helen Suskin-Lang at Pfizer.

Over the course of the day, the solar panel automatically tracks the movement of the sun, to provide maximum power to the lab.

What happens next? The answer to this question grows almost monthly and begins with Sereolipi's first computer class, in February 2006. Lesson #1 was titled: What is a Computer? When students first entered the newly constructed classroom, they mistook the laptops for TV's.

And what has happened over the course of this first year. Students have learned the basics, including how to operate and maintain computers, Microsoft Word, and image manipulation. Along the way, students learned typing skills and got extra opportunities to practice English language skills, two opportunities that raise them above a large part of their competition in Kenya's competitive job market. These students will enter high school (which does not have computers or the internet) with a huge leg up.

Students hard at work...these students have stayed at school during the month-long holiday to receive extra instruction.

And what's next? In just this last month, in conjunction with iMentor Kenya, the school has made yet another leap forward. For a detailed description of each of these new projects, see this post.
  • Beginning this winter some of the students will receive American mentors through iMentor Kenya and all students will receive email accounts through iMentor. This will further empower students by providing them with baseline email and internet skills that are also attractive commodities in Kenya's evolving job market.
  • My mentee Thomas (who is also the computer teacher at the school) and I have created an ambitious workplan for the computer lab in 2007. Throughout the year, I will continue to work with Thomas on lesson plans and give him access to iMentor's innovative curriculum and resources.
...And the computer lab has not even celebrated its first anniversary. The question snowballs with possibility: what's next?

Bill Ackman has continued his support of Sereolipi, including building a new dormitory for boys (with solar power) and installing taps on Sereolipi's water tanks, to provide running water.

Whitney Tilson continues to work vigorously to introduce American professionals to life in Sereolipi, and has begun a scholarship program for high school students who cannot afford school fees.

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