Infotech program aids African students


Senior Bryant Harrison first heard about the MIT Africa Internet Technology Initiative (AITI) during high school when the relatively new program was highlighted in a Boston Globe article.

"It sounded like an impressive program," said Harrison, who is now president of the initiative. Harrison taught a course in information technology in Kenya through the program during the summer of 2004.

Each summer for the past six years, AITI has sent MIT students, both graduate and undergraduate, to several countries in Africa. Working in teams of four, the students teach six-week courses in computer programming.

Paul Njoroge, a Kenyan graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, started AITI in 2000 to combat the disparity he saw between the information technology knowledge base in the developing world and the United States.

AITI was officially recognized as part of the MIT Association of Student Activities last summer. But in recent months, AITI officers have struggled to find the funding they had in the first years of the program.

"Once we were past the first few years of funding, we were kind of on our own," Harrison said. "It is an expensive program to maintain." AITI released a recent budget that shows the Kenyan portion alone costs more than $25,000.

"Ideally we would like to have huge grants, but those take a lot of time and experience," he said. "We need to take steps to be more sustainable."

AITI was founded on the notion that information technology is empowering, Harrison explained. Students in the developing world do not have the kinds of information technology programs "we take for granted here," he said. Many of the roughly 75 university students who take AITI courses have Internet experience but lack programming experience, he said.

In Nairobi, Kenya, MIT students teach courses at a local high school and at Strathmore College. Students then return and train the next AITI teachers. "Each generation of AITI leaders rigorously trains the next," said President Emeritus Paul Gray, who helped Njoroge start AITI.

Over the years, Gray said he has received glowing thank-you notes from principals and teachers in Africa whose students went through the program. "The program has been very successful, not only in its objective, but also in bringing MIT there and having our name known for this kind of work," Gray said. "It is well on its way to becoming a permanent part of the Institute."

Usually, roughly 16 MIT students are chosen each year from a pool of between 60 to 75 applicants. This year, the group was only able to send 10 MIT students, who all went to Kenya, because of the lack of funding, Harrison said.

AITI looks less for extensive Java programming experience than for the kind of people who will give back to the program, he said. "We are looking for enthusiasm and the kind of person who can handle all the different things you will encounter," Harrison said.

Gray has confidence in the "student-created and continued program," he said. "We continue to seek gifts that will sustain AITI." To make a donation to AITI, contact Gray at pogo@mit.edu or x3-4665.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 17, 2006 (download PDF).


Topics: Computer science and technology, Global, Students, Volunteering, outreach, public service

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