Matt Hottell made his way up the stone steps, sweat dripping from his brow. It’s hot in Belize. Humid. On both sides of the 108 stairs to the top of the hill where he aimed to bring the 21st century to an area barely touched by time, he could hear creatures stirring just out of sight.
“It almost felt like you were walking up to the Temple of the Internet,” Hottell says back in the air-conditioned comfort of his office at the School of Informatics and Computing. “This hill is in the jungle, but that’s where the internet is.”
Setting up a viable network in the tropical atmosphere of Belize was just one of Hottell’s goals when he led a group of 10 IU students on a trip in mid-May to provide the Tumul K’in Center of Learning with computer equipment and IT capacity. It was an ambitious effort as part of IU’s Alternative Break program that provides students the opportunity to build real-world skills while experiencing a different culture in an immersive environment.
“Belize is a natural fit because English is the primary language there, but it’s a great melting pot of different cultures,” says Hottell, a senior lecturer and director of Serve IT at SoIC.
Belize’s Central American location also enjoyed the benefit of eliminating jet lag as opposed to trips either east or west, and the project built upon a previous relationship between IU and the country.
The Tumul K’in Center of Learning serves as a sort of Mayan high school, but it isn’t anything like high schools most people remember. There are old chalkboards on the walls, and there isn’t a projector to be found. The buildings are mostly thatched-roof huts, although the classroom was one of the few structures with a concrete floor. Computers were sparse—there are two machines for staff and two that were accessible to students—but that’s it.
Improving access to the internet was a focus, one that was hindered by the fact the village’s metal water tower tends to block the wireless signal. Somewhat rudimentary equipment is another issue.
“They have a radio station at the top of the hill,” Hottell says. “It’s a modern building, and the D.J. booth is enclosed and has an air conditioner in it. That’s where they keep their router and their broadcast equipment. There’s another room that is connected to it that isn’t air conditioned at all. Some people go into that room and use the internet connection in that room. They’re also using home equipment, which doesn’t have great range.”
The other key for the IU group was to teach students the basic fundamentals of using a computer, such as how to use a mouse. Few students had much experience with computers, and getting them over their initial fears in using programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint was critical. Just providing the laptops that will allow the students to work with the programs over time will be beneficial.
Developing a culture of tiered learning was important, as well. Although all the students participated in the lessons, the first-year students in the school will be able to teach their younger counterparts on computers that were left at the facility. When students from IU return in the future—more trips are planned in January and May of 2016—they will continue to work with the same students they did this year to build their knowledge base and, hopefully, create a culture of learning.
“It doesn’t matter if all of them don’t get it,” Hottell says. “If half of them get it and they can show the rest how to do it when they have problems with it, I’m happy. It’s all about empowerment, making someone feel comfortable.”
The ongoing nature of the project will be critical. Heat, humidity, and electronics don’t mix, which could mean a shorter life for the computer equipment that was left behind.
“The computers may not last a year, but we’re going down there in six months,” Hottell says. “We can always give them machines that have been donated to us. These machines should work for two to three more years before they run into any major problems. We also set them up with Skype so if they have a problem with one of the computers, they can Skype us. We can actually walk them through what the problem might be.”
Hottell’s dream is to eventually provide better equipment, which would allow internet access to expand.
“What I would like to do is find some donated equipment from a corporate sponsor,” Hottell says. “They could donate something coming out of production off the three-year life cycle that still has a few years left on it. It would get the internet off the hill and get it down to the bottom.”
Ultimately, Hottell wants the project to create Mayan students who are better prepared to face a modern world. Those 108 steps to the top of the hill were just the first in a journey rich with potential.