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The African Connection

WPI adds a new continent to its global project network.

The Namibia Project Center exposes WPI students to new sights, a new culture, and a new way of looking at the world and its needs.

By Carol Sonenklar

WPI expanded its reach to a new continent this summer with the inauguration of a residential project center in Windhoek, Namibia, the first initiative to grow out of groundbreaking agreements WPI signed earlier this year with three African universities: Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and the Polytechnic of Namibia.

Management professor Arthur Gerstenfeld, who directs the Namibia Project Center with adjunct assistant professor Creighton Peet, says its purpose is to make WPI students more socially aware and responsible in their use of technology as they help developing countries. "Students have an excellent opportunity to grow, and we're really doing something good," he says.

"The students will have to think about applying appropriate technology rather than the best available technology."

While the challenges on the African continent are technically simpler than those in the industrialized world, the infrastructures and the population needs are quite different from those of developed countries, notes Associate Provost William Durgin. "The students will have to think about applying appropriate technology rather than the best available technology," he says.

Rebecca MacDonald, a senior, and Gabriel Cantor, a junior, launched the program with a project that focused on the problem of creating a vocational education for a technological work force in Namibia, a challenge for a country still struggling with the legacy of apartheid.

"Unemployment in Namibia is over 50 percent," says Gerstenfeld, who along with his wife, Professor Susan Vernon-Gerstenfeld, initiated the African agreements and accompanied the students on their journey. "The students' work was funded by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which rated the education problem as one of its highest priorities."

The students interviewed educators, administrators, teachers and students in Windhoek, the country's largest city, and in the surrounding countryside, and discovered vast differences. "Our research and modeling demonstrated that the education base was not equal," says MacDonald. "Due to higher taxes in wealthier areas, the schools did not have equal facilities or services. We showed that the government needs to bring everyone up to the same level."

As interesting as her research was, MacDonald says she learned lessons beyond the scope of her project. She found, for example, that Namibia, a former German colony located on the northern border of South Africa, did not easily fit into her preconceived notions. "Windhoek was much more developed than I'd thought it would be," she says. "There were Internet cafes, the food was good, and the water was safe to drink. However, the rural areas were incredibly poor."

MacDonald says she also learned lessons about her own country. Since the majority of power and money in Namibia is still in the hands of white farmers and ranchers who employ blacks only as workers, she initially thought that Namibia and America differed greatly on race issues. "But then I thought about where I grew up in the suburbs of Albany, N.Y. My high school was almost all white, while the inner-city schools were almost all black. It was not very different from the situation in Namibia," she reflected. "That really opened my eyes."

MacDonald and Cantor paved the way for six project teams (each with three WPI students and one student from Namibia Polytechnic) who will complete projects in Africa next spring. "Our students will be helping modernize systems," explains Vernon-Gerstenfeld. "Some of the projects we have planned include creating ways of improving the fishing industry, determining which types of energy are most effective, and helping municipalities deliver water more efficiently."

Sonenklar is a free-lance writer based in State College, Pa.

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