Students work to deliver SolarSPELL technology to countries in need

The group, which has already visited East Africa twice this year, is planning trips to the Pacific Islands

An ASU-led project called SolarSPELL is preparing to make a push into more countries while it updates the technology that comes with its devices. 

The SolarSPELL, a Solar Powered Educational Learning Library, is an offline digital library designed to help bring educational resources to countries with limited or no internet access.

Read More: ASU SolarSPELL team builds portable libraries for low-resource communities

SolarSPELL has teamed up with the Peace Corps to bring the SPELLs to teams in different countries and receive feedback on how they are used and received.

Laura Hosman, an assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and creator of the SolarSPELL, said the students work with volunteers to build the digital libraries and try to take the Peace Corps responses into account as much as possible. Their newest addition will be the latest versions of Google Chrome and Adobe Acrobat.

Read More: ASU ranks among top Peace Corps volunteer-producing universities

Over 200 SPELLs have been sent to seven different countries, and updates are still being made. That’s where ASU comes in. Hosman and her team will host a build day at the Polytechnic campus on April 21 to improv the tech.

The project was originally designed to get technology to the Pacific Islands, but the team quickly realized the issue wasn't technology. Rather, the Peace Corps volunteers on the islands needed teachable content.

Since the team was familiar with the program already, they decided to use technology to get the content there. That's when they created the SPELLs. 

"This wasn't ever a technology project," Hosman said. "It was always, 'How can we help?'" 

The SPELL has a small, solar-powered microcomputer that houses the content as well as a small, solar-powered wifi hotspot. A library lab can also be provided if the school doesn’t have smart devices, the library lab comes equipped with six tablets – yes, also solar powered – that can connect to the wifi hotspot to access the content on the microcomputer.

The SPELL doesn’t connect to the internet. It just needs to be used in a place with enough sun to power it, so the Pacific Islands are the ideal location.

A group of ASU students working on the project are fundraising to personally deliver SPELL systems to the Pacific Islands. As of Wednesday night, their PitchFunder page had collected $855, about eight percent, of their $9,600 goal.

Miles Mabey, a robotic engineering senior who has been working on the project since it came to ASU a year and a half ago, is one of the students planning to deliver the SPELLs to Fiji.

Mabey, the project's hardware team lead, said he's loved working on the project and helping to improve the technology using the Peace Corps' feedback.

"When the originals went out, they didn’t have a dictionary or a thesaurus, so after the Peace Corps used it for six months, they said they’d love a dictionary," he said. "It seemed so obvious in hindsight, but we're really just working off of feedback."

Pamela Coleman, a human systems engineering senior, is working to make the program as a whole more user-friendly.

"I'm making instruction pamphlets easier to understand, designing the user interface, deciding what apps should be used and where," she said. "Basically anything that could get confusing, I'm trying to simplify it, so anyone can understand it."

Maddie Arnold, a sophomore studying journalism and innovation in society, got involved with SolarSPELL after presenting her research on technology in developing worlds last semester. Hosman heard her presentation and invited her to join her Design for the Developing World class, the class that works on SolarSPELL and other projects.

Because she's not an engineering student, Arnold said she took over the group's PitchFunder campaign to help get students overseas to deliver SPELLs. She will be using her journalism experience to interview Peace Corps volunteers about what has worked and what needs to be improved.

"We've already sent SPELLs to Samoa so that trip will focus on interviewing Peace Corps volunteers about what we need to improve," Arnold said. "Miles and Pam will be implementing the program for the first time in Fiji, so they'll be teaching the volunteers how it all works."

Hosman said this will be the first time the team actually travels to Fiji, but this won't be their first trip this year.

"We actually made two trips (to East Africa) this year already," she said. "In January it was three different trainings ... with Bridge2Rwanda Scholars." 

The SolarSPELL team is also partnering with the Next Generation Service Corps to create a version of the program for Tonto Creek Camp in Northern Arizona, a youth camp designed to let kids explore nature, Arnold said.

She explained that the most important aspect of the SPELLs is that they are created with localized content, meaning they design them in a way so that they are accessible to everyone in a region.

"We don't just make one for a specific place then drop one there," she said. "We already have SPELLs programmed for the South Pacific and for Eastern Africa, so we've partnered with the NGSC to make one for Northern Arizona."

She said the Northern Arizona SPELL will include things like an Arizona natural resource library that will be useful to the kids at Tonto Creek Camp.

If students want to get involved, Arnold said they absolutely should look into joining the class.

"If they're interested, we absolutely have a place for them," she said.

Editor's note: Maddie Arnold was formerly with the State Press as a reporter, though she is no longer employed by the publication.

Corrections: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where Miles Mabey was travelling, and where SolarSPELLs had already been sent. The article has been updated to reflect the correct information.

The article has also been updated to clarify that Library Labs contain tablets.

Additionally, the article has been updated to explain Prof. Hosman’s “Design for the Developing World” class works with SolarSPELLs and other projects.

The article has also been updated to indicate that Maddie Arnold has not yet interviewed Peace Corps volunteers.


Reach the reporters at aegeland@asu.edu and maatenci@asu.edu and follow @alexis_egeland and @mitchellatencio on Twitter.

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