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One Laptop, One Hope

July 30, 3009 | Michael Cariaso had been to Southeast Asia before, but when he saw an opportunity to take a leave of absence to volunteer with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, he knew he couldn’t pass it up. In his guest speech at the Best Practices Awards dinner, Cariaso, a former consultant at BioTeam, gave attendees a photo tour of the OLPC program and several of the schools he worked with in Thailand and Cambodia. “I went to the original OLPC school,” says Cariaso, but, “I’m not really affiliated; I’m an enthusiast.”

OLPC is a nonprofit organization providing laptops to the world’s poorest children. “The machine, in parts, costs $188,” explains Cariaso, and comes with several ingenious hardware and software features specifically tailored to the users’ needs. “The screen is unlike any screen, any laptop, any computer you’ve ever seen,” Cariaso says. “You can take the brightness all the way down, and... you have a screen that’s blocking out light and the sunlight itself provides the light.” Using sunlight not only saves power for users who often have only sporadic energy available from a generator, but it allows them to work outside. The laptop also comes with “the same solid state storage that’s getting raves as the next big thing… by not having a moving hard drive and no fan, you’ve reduced the possibility of wear and tear and made it much more rugged if it were dropped,” Cariaso explains.

Even more impressive than the hardware, though, is the software designed to teach the children about programming and the internet and, as Cariaso points out, drastically broaden their later work opportunities.

The OLPCs come with Linux and “a lot of programs… with very friendly interfaces developed for someone that doesn’t necessarily speak English at all and certainly not as a first language.” The programs are designed as games to teach computer and internet skills. “While you think you’re playing games, you’re learning the basic concepts of things like programming!”

“Here’s a way for some six year old kid to click on an icon, see the little Python [programming language] interpreter, play with a couple of programs,” says Cariaso. “[It’s] sitting there meant to do hands on examples. The whole thing is just mind-blowing.” 

This article also appeared in the July-August 2009 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine.
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