It’s been almost 3 weeks since the end of the iSTEP 2009 internship. TechBridgeWorld has been busy working with the media on getting the word out about the internship’s success. We have also been busy finalizing the iSTEP 2009 Report (now available!). Below is an excerpt from the final report, which highlights the overall iSTEP 2009 team experience:
The iSTEP internship was designed to give Carnegie Mellon students and recent graduates the opportunity to apply skills learned in the classroom to address real-world challenges. Furthermore, the multidisciplinary and globally distributed nature of the team allowed interns to draw on the different strengths of their teammates and take advantage of resources available in different geographic locations.
iSTEP also gave interns the opportunity to give back and positively impact three Tanzanian communities. Rotimi reflects, “Seldom does one get an internship experience that allows students to conduct research and find their own solutions to problems that positively impact developing communities in the world.”
The iSTEP 2009 interns faced many challenges and frustrations at the start – partly because they were pioneers of a new internship program and partly because they were dealing with a new environment and culture. Brad affirms, “When I arrived in Tanzania, the pace surprised me. It’s not that I worked too little – in fact, I probably worked more than normal. Rather, things just took a lot longer to get done. This is because there is less control over the environment and less understanding of the conditions.”
Furthermore, for most of the interns, this was their first experience conducting field research, “Field research, in my opinion, is a struggle. Field research involving people is even tougher. There are so many unknowns that it is impossible to anticipate everything,” states Beatrice.
Despite all of this, a valuable skill the interns acquired is to adapt to their surroundings. “The timeline I had originally created for myself changed as we started talking with the communities. I realized very quickly that I needed to be more open to plans changing and not being able to predict my work timeline,” adds Rotimi.
The interns also valued and appreciated the importance of working closely with the communities. Hatem advises, “Regardless of how wonderful and powerful the technology solution is, community involvement is the most important. Technology cannot overcome challenges on its own – rather – the community and its people are the ones who can transform the technology into a solution.”
An important lesson learned was that everything cannot be solved in a 10-week internship, “This has been an ongoing theme, as repeatedly through the internship we have had to stop and take reality checks and pick out the things that we will not be able to accomplish before the term is over.”
While the interns realized everything could not be accomplished in 10 weeks, they were optimistic about the future of the projects. Dan adds, “The fact that the project was too big for 10 weeks was not a bad thing – I enjoyed sinking my teeth into it, and I hope I have started work that others will continue.”
On behalf of the iSTEP 2009 and TechBridgeWorld teams, we would like to thank you for reading! We would also like to thank our partners, advisors, and many others for their contributions to making the inaugural iSTEP a success.
From the first day of the iSTEP mini course until now, my experience as an intern on the iSTEP team has been an enlightening and powerful one. As a student with many ethnographic layers — my Nigerian heritage, British background, and American experience, as well as my prior work experience in other parts of Africa — I thought that my prior experiences would serve as a major advantage for me.
Before leaving, I was as prepared as I was going to get. I had the same feeling that I get before I run a 100 meter dash — whether or not I feel 100% that day, I know that I have been racing for years and that I have been working on my technique. And when the gun goes off, I use all I know to get me through the race. In my book of life challenges, I would liken the iSTEP internship to an 800 meter dash, a race and adventure that I hadn’t been coached for, but definitely knew I was capable of accomplishing. This internship challenged me in a new way, and required me to enhance the skills that I already had in order to excel in the role that I had been assigned.
Seldom does one find an internship experience that allows students to conduct research and find their own solutions to problems that are impacting developing communities in the world. Upon my arrival in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I was a bit intimidated by the goals that I had set for myself. I knew I wanted to explore the country, meet new people, and embrace the new culture but I was also aware that I had a lot of work to do. I also did not have much experience in needs assessment, so I wanted to make sure I was focused from the time we arrived. The timeline I had originally created for myself changed as we started talking with the communities. I realized very quickly that I needed to be more open to plans changing and not being able to predict my work timeline.
As the weeks passed, I became comfortable with my surroundings, familiar with the community members, and proactive with my work. I knew how to engage with the different communities, record data, and share it with the rest of the team. Nothing was spoon-fed to me. It was all about experiential learning and a full commitment to the success of the project in the community.
I am going to walk away from this summer with a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the realities of ICTD, and the challenges facing the developing world. Africa is my homeland and the opportunity to travel and experience the cultures in Tanzania, and take a look at social justice and political issues that I really care about is something that I will always be grateful for. I cherish the experience that I have received this summer which has provided me with practical exposure outside of the classroom, outside my own ambit and back to the origin of life and commerce. I know this is just the beginning of my work in Africa, but it has created a strong foundation for me to be able to contribute to the development of my people.
Rotimi Abimbola was the team’s Needs Assessment and Evaluation Coordinator, based in Dar es Salaam, for the iSTEP 2009 internship. She is a rising senior at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. She is pursuing two majors, Political Science and International Relations, as well as a minor in African Studies. Rotimi is determined to pursue a career with a focus on politics and governance in Africa. She was born in London, England, but grew up in Nigeria in West Africa. At Carnegie Mellon, Rotimi has been elected as the Student Body President for the upcoming academic year. She has also held several other leadership positions, including Chair of the Undergraduate Student Senate, Resident Assistant, Varsity Track and Field Athlete, and founding member of the African Student Organization.
iSTEP 2009 has been a remarkable experience technically and personally. On the technical side, the field experience was certainly different than any of my prior experiences. Working in the field requires being dynamic and ready to re-plan and adjust quickly. This internship offered me the opportunity to solidify my project management, planning skills and put to test my Computer Science skills in a real world setting.
On the personal side, this experience has been truly influential. Living in a different country, meeting new people, getting accustomed to a new culture, and managing a project all in 10 weeks had a significant impact on my personality. This internship helped me improve my communication skills significantly. Communicating with our team, which is a very diverse and globally distributed team, has been a great exercise. Being able to communicate ideas to people from different backgrounds and collaborate in a project with them made our work experience significantly smoother and more enjoyable. Beyond day-to-day personal and work communication skills, this internship was a great teamwork experience for me.
The iSTEP 2009 internship has shown me the importance of people and communities. Regardless of how wonderful and powerful a technological solution is, community involvement is the most important. Technology cannot overcome challenges on its own; rather, the community and its people are the ones who can transform the technology into a solution. Furthermore, having local partners is absolutely essential. Most of the work could not have been achieved without the support from our local partners. Local partners are part of the community and culture. Their support and knowledge are essential to achieve sustainable solutions, especially within a limited timeframe.
Having firsthand experience of being on the ground cannot be replaced by any readings and online research. Living in a country and experiencing the daily interactions with people is the best way to truly understand the challenges a community faces and gain the necessary insight to contribute and help. We could have done all the programming back home, but our presence on the ground increased our solutions’ relevance significantly. All in all, this internship has been significantly influential, technically and personally. If I go back on time, I would certainly choose the iSTEP internship again.
Hatem Alismail was the iSTEP 2009 team’s Technical Lead for the Literacy Games project and was based in Dar es Salaam. Hatem graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s Doha, Qatar campus with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and a minor in Mathematics in May of 2009. Over the last four years, Hatem has gained significant programming and project leading experience. His areas of interest include sustainable technology development. In particular, Hatem is interested in the creative use of widely available computing platforms, such as consumer grade cameras and cell phones. Hatem looks forward to pursuing a Masters at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute next autumn.
How should I describe my time with iSTEP? Well, first of all, early. The pre-departure class was at 8:00 a.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, and even when we were in Tanzania, a country that I have generally found to be very relaxed about time, we frequently left for work shortly after 8:00 a.m. I am normally a very late sleeper, and something really has to catch my interest for me to put in the effort to haul my body out of bed at that hour. iSTEP definitely caught my interest.
I am normally a technical guy. Throughout my time at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, my primary interests were always the more theoretical, mathematical aspects of Computer Science, which are far removed from the realities of implementing software systems, let alone the social implications that software may have. Part of what attracted me to iSTEP – and kept me waking up at those early hours – was the opportunity to try something new. Here was a job where it was all about social implications. I had to think daily about not just creating a solution to the problem, but creating an inexpensive solution that could be used by community workers who may only have a primary education. And beyond that, it had to be an application that we could successfully pitch to government and other organizations. This was new, and it was exciting.
Of course, there was a great deal of novelty from just working in Tanzania. Communicating with people who spoke varying degrees of English – from flawless to nearly non-existent – oftentimes made me wish I were able to speak Swahili. Slow Internet connections and daily blackouts were a fact of life. And on the weekends, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to explore Dar es Salaam and its surroundings.
I do wish that we had more time. 10 weeks was just enough to do the first stage of needs assessment and build a prototypical solution; another 10 weeks and I think we could deploy that solution and get some useful data from it, and more. The fact that the project was too big for 10 weeks was not a bad thing – I enjoyed sinking my teeth into it, and I hope I have started work that others will continue.
Daniel Nuffer was the Technical Lead for Social Workers Mobile Tool project and was based in Dar es Salaam. Dan graduated in May of 2009 from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. He has completed two internships with Microsoft, in Redmond and in New York, and is particularly interested in programming languages and their applications.
When I began this internship, I was looking for a few very specific things: I wanted to experience a developing country, while making an impact on improving that community. I also needed to work within my area of expertise so that the work experience would be relevant toward my future career. I wanted to see the culture while not being a tourist, and work toward improving living conditions.
When I arrived in Tanzania, the pace surprised me. It’s not that I worked too little – in fact, I probably worked more than normal. Rather, things just took a lot longer to get done. This is because there is less control over the environment and less understanding of the conditions. The other part that was difficult for me was developing new technology to meet the needs of a community that still had so many basic needs that have yet to be fulfilled. A direct example is that Uhuru Mchanganyiko Primary School desperately needed braille books. It was tough because while this internship did have a component where we tried to match community needs with providers who could meet those needs, my job was to focus on what I could do in the framework of the research. This limited me to doing work that I did not necessarily feel was the most effective at helping the community.
However, the people here are invested in improving their lives, as well as the development of their country. Often, we wrongly assume that without help from developed communities, developing communities would crumble and fail. I think it is very much the opposite. If left to their own devices, developing communities will improve, but they can improve faster with help. And I guess that is why I wanted to be here.
I have been humbled by others’ hospitality and their warmth in helping a stranger, and I have been inspired by the work of Tanzanians. I have even advanced technically, getting my first real exposure to C++ and developing user documentation for people with limited technology experience. I have even learned how to work in a globally distributed team. I am confident that these skills will serve me well in the future.
Out of all the lessons learned, the biggest one I learned was to keep plugging. This means working through frustrations and limitations, and trying to find meaning even in small tasks. It means putting up with challenging conditions, and learning that what seems like a big problem in the United States is relatively minor here. It put things into perspective for me. And for that, I am grateful.
Bradley Hall was the Technical Lead for the Braille Writing Tutor project and was based in Dar es Salaam. Brad is a Mechanical Engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh expected to graduate in May 2010. As a 5th year scholar this coming year, Brad will continue his undergraduate experience next year under a full scholarship. He is the current president of Engineers without Borders-CMU and works as the Community Adviser for Donner House, an on-campus student residence. His professional interests are centered on designing sustainable technology solutions to problems faced by developing nations.
Going into this internship, I had some idea of what to expect, but I do not think anything could have prepared me for the real-life situations and challenges in the field. Field research, in my opinion, is a struggle. Field research involving people is even tougher. There are so many unknowns that it is impossible to anticipate everything. When starting the work, a lot of things seem to go wrong, because figuring out how to be less reliant on plans and more reliant on your resourcefulness comes with a steep learning curve.
There are many things that frustrated and overwhelmed me, mostly at the beginning and end of the internship. At the beginning everything is new and you are learning to roll with the punches, and at the end you are scrambling to finish things up so you can make a smooth exit. The middle bit is where I figured many things out and learned to revert to my laid back mode so I could take things in stride. I remember the first time I sat down with teachers at one of the primary schools we worked with. That moment reminded me of why I decided to embark on this journey in the first place.
I am a scientist and have been into mathematics and science most of my life, but post-college I realized that, although physically applicable sciences were interesting, I really wanted to see how science impacted people’s lives. iSTEP afforded me the opportunity to do just that. I have seen how hypotheses developed in front of a computer in a remote location just do not make sense once you are on site. Ground-level realities are so important to consider if one wants to successfully implement a sustainable project. All in all, I would say iSTEP has given me my first glimpse into what field work is like; its challenges and also its victories. Based on this experience, I have affirmed my desire to be involved in ICTD (Information and Communication Technologies and Development) work.
Beatrice Dias was the Monitoring and Evaluation Coordinator, based in Dar es Salaam, for iSTEP 2009. Bea is in her 3rd year as a Ph.D. student in the Engineering and Public Policy Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who volunteers with TechBridgeWorld to assist with marketing, events, fundraising, and strategic planning. She earned her undergraduate degree from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York with concentrations in Mathematics and Physics. Her current research involves measuring the impact of the USA PATRIOT Act and the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act on Microbiological Research in the U.S. Beatrice is a native of Sri Lanka and hopes to pursue a career in policy evaluation.
Throughout my time with the iSTEP program there were a few themes more prevalent to me than the need for organization. I have never felt like the most organized person in the world. For example, the desk I am working on right now is scattered with hundreds of research papers related to the program and a busted cell-phone with an American flag template. Despite this, the iSTEP program not only taught me how to be organized but just how much good organization can do for you.
Looking past the mess on my desk, the technical leads have ensured me that my work for the past 10 weeks has been organized and clean. Brad, Dan, and Hatem all have their own means of organizing their tasks to be done, and each format has ensured that I keep my own work organized when I am pulled in three directions on an everyday basis. The tech leads all did an admirable job in keeping their projects organized through the many setbacks we faced.
Putting it all together, it is difficult to give an accurate representation of how much I feel we accomplished. I look back at the start of the internship and I cannot believe how much we completed in such a short amount of time. Conversely, as the projects wrap up, I can say how much we could have done with another 10 weeks. It is clear that there is so much more to do and I hope the people involved in Tanzania continue to develop these projects when we depart. But I do believe we have given them a considerable amount of work to get them started.
Consequently, I have learned to accept that there are things that you cannot accomplish. Ideally, I would like to work on these projects for months to come, but there is not enough time or resources to get them to the state I would like before the team leaves Tanzania. This has been an ongoing theme, as repeatedly through the internship we have had to stop and take reality checks and pick out the things that we will not be able to accomplish before the term is over. I have never been the type of person who likes to submit something partially finished. Despite this, I know we have done a lot of good work here and have an excellent start for future development. So we may not accomplish everything I wanted but I guess saving the world by solving world hunger, accomplishing universal peace, and building an In-N-Out Burger in Pittsburgh will have to occur during a different 10-week internship.
Anthony Velázquez was the Technical Floater for iSTEP 2009. Based in Pittsburgh, he provided technical support for all three projects and worked closely with the technical leads. He is a rising senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He works with Development Solutions Organization, a student organization on campus, to raise awareness of global development issues and help connect peers with opportunities. He remains interested in issues revolving around computer science education and the intersection between technology and global development.