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One of my concerns when I started the DukeEngage program was that I would be just another one out of the dozens of volunteers from a developed country like America, descending upon a school, prattling off some useless facts to the kids, wasting both time and resources, and then disappearing back home.

And honestly, it’s too early for me to proclaim, “No! I’m different! I’ve helped work with the professors here to accomplish something!” (not to mention boastful and bordering on savior complex). I’m still coming to terms with the realization that we, as volunteers coming from a foreign country, could never do as good of a job as the local teachers. Even in a subject – computer science – in which I might be able to offer a skill that was previously inaccessible to them, it’s really, really hard to teach computer programming with my just proficient grasp of Spanish to kids who don’t have computers at home.

Still, I’m super excited about the possibilities that are available with the laptops we have at the school.

According to Tanya (Pillao Matao’s director), six years ago, they received nineteen XO Laptops from the government through the One Laptop per Child program (a really awesome program! Check it out). These laptops are really useful for students in rural areas because they’re inexpensive, power-efficient, and very durable.

They use the Sugar Labs graphical interface that abandons the traditional computer interface and replaces it with one designed to facilitate learning for children. Unfortunately, this means that the professors at the school aren’t really sure what to do with them because the interface is unfamiliar and somewhat unintuitive for adults used to traditional PCs. Some of the kids told us that in the six years that the school has had them, each grade has used the computers only twice.

With the students, we’ve gone over an overview of how the computers work and how to use the applications that come installed. Right now, I’m working on putting together a lesson plan that incorporates a program similar to Python turtles, where students will be able to put together pieces of code to direct a turtle to draw lines and pictures on their computer. Later on, we’ll work with a program similar to Scratch to program animated characters to move, make noise, and talk.

Also, Pillao Matao places a lot of importance on the children – the majority of whom are migrants, Quechua-speaking, and/or victims of poverty and discrimination – taking pride in and appreciating their cultural roots as well as those of different cultures. We thought it would be cool to use the computers to help the students learn about intercultural differences and the geography of the Americas through an application called “Conozco America” that we found through Sugar Labs and downloaded onto the computers.

At some point, I’ll try to help the professors find and download new educational applications for the students to use, allowing the students to research topics that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

Unrelated to Compsci, but I was pretty excited to find that some of the kids really like jump roping, and hopefully we can show them how to jump in double dutch during their recess.

I think it’s very true that, as in most overseas volunteer experiences, I’ll be getting more out of the experience than the people I’m meant to help. I get the opportunity to learn skills – teaching a subject I enjoy, communicating better in Spanish, brushing with the basics of Quechua – as well as to experience an amazing culture and beautiful landscapes, and hang out with some awesome kids.

However, I hope we’ll be able to contribute in a practical way and I’m very grateful that the director and the teachers at our school have made this possible for us.