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$1.12 Million to Bridge
Digital Divide in Ghana

Engineering students and faculty at Penn and an African university have received a grant of Hewlett-Packard equipment and services totaling $1.12 million to lay the foundation for a high-speed information and communication infrastructure in Ghana.

The award represents a breakthrough in the grassroots efforts of Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Science to bridge the global digital divide, efforts believed to be the most extensive and concrete undertaken by an American institution of higher education. In three years, Penn Engineering students and their professors have created computer laboratories in four developing nations as well as impoverished areas of Philadelphia.

"Few events have a more positive effect on a community than the arrival of digital technology and the web; they are the loudest heralds of progress and global inclusion," said Engineering Dean Eduardo D. Glandt. "This program will empower individuals and change their lives. We are extremely fortunate to be able to participate in it."

Much has been said and written about the "digital divide" that separates the world's wealthier people, who have come to rely upon the Internet for information critical to their business and personal lives, and poorer citizens without access to these revolutionary technologies. Beyond bringing its resources to bear in tackling this worldwide problem, Penn Engineering is providing undergraduates an opportunity to learn hands-on about both information technology and the cross-cultural dynamics increasingly important to the global workforce.

"Many of the students who have traveled overseas to work on these computer centers have told me that it has forever changed their lives," said Dr. Sohrab Rabii, an electrical engineering professor and faculty leader of Penn Engineering's digital divide initiatives in Ghana and other African nations. "At the age of 20 or 22, being involved in an effort like this can have a profound impact on one's outlook and direction in life."

The Hewlett-Packard award, to be administered jointly by Penn and Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, will develop a computing infrastructure at KNUST and computer centers in eastern Ghana, including the nation's second-largest city of Kumasi. Hewlett-Packard will work with KNUST and Ghana Telecom in the coming months to put in place high-speed fiber optic lines. This summer, a team of Penn Engineering undergraduates will travel to Ghana to offer instruction to trainers on basic computer use, systems administration and computer repair and maintenance, enabling them to reach thousands of others for years to come.

This summer's efforts will build upon a 30-station computer lab created at KNUST last summer by Penn Engineering and KNUST students using technology donated to Penn by national and local businesses. It's hoped that Ghana, where annual per capita income hovers around $400, will eventually boast 50 such centers.

"In addition to enabling our undergraduates to gain a priceless educational experience, we regard this as a small way for Penn Engineering to serve the global community," said Dr. Joseph Sun, the School's director of academic affairs and the person who has spearheaded the school's technology-based service learning initiatives. "This is our version of being a good citizen of the world."

Donations of surplus computer equipment have come from Philadelphia's business community, including Keystone Mercy Health Plan and Cozen and O'Connor, and from computer giants such as 3Com, covering the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of computers, servers, modems and other materials needed for each facility. Additional funds raised from local and national sources cover the costs of service programs overseas. Dr. Rabii and Dr. Sun hope that the Hewlett-Packard support portends a new, more potent phase of Penn Engineering's efforts to narrow the digital divide. Drs. Rabii and Sun are communicating with officials in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and South Africa who would like to replicate the efforts so far in Mali and Ghana.

"When we set up computer facilities overseas, we consult with local scientists and officials to determine what people in these countries want," Dr. Rabii said. "We don't want to go in and impose a setup that we think will work, because those facilities will quickly fall into disuse."

Dr. Sun said that with the growth of globalization in virtually every industry, increasing numbers of engineering undergraduates and companies view cross-cultural experiences as an asset. Students who have worked on projects in Africa have received academic credit, and those who receive university financial aid have been receiving additional support to cover their travels in developing nations.

Hewlett-Packard's support comes via the company's Digital Villages program, which aims to help communities in developing nations and the U.S. harness technology in collaboration with schools, universities, governments, community services, non-profit organizations and small businesses.

Since the first computer center was built three years ago in Ecuador, some 60 Penn undergraduates have traveled overseas to help set up facilities there and in India, Mali and Ghana. Another 150 have worked from Philadelphia to implement local projects and in support of the global programs, which routinely field four times as many technology-savvy applicants as there are slots available on trips to developing nations.

Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 22, February 12, 2002


February 12, 2002
Volume 48 Number 22

A new chair in gerontology for Dr. Naylor in Nursing.
A new chair in chemical engineering for Dr. Vohs.
The SAS Dean's Forum focuses on the Human Genome.
SEAS bridges the Digital Divide in Ghana with a grant from HP.
The Faculty Senate proposes a revision to procedures for the establishment, merger and closing of departments, divisions and similar entities.
The 2002 Models of Excellence Awards honor the contributions of staff achievements in a variety of settings across campus.
HR unveils a new Health and Wellness program for faculty and staff.
Time to plan for summer: Penn Camps for Children range from anthropology to volleyball.