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In the community of Suruacá, located on the western shore of the Tapajós River in the Brazilian Amazon, availability of information and communication technology ("ICT") has helped in overcoming isolation and improved the quality of education available to its youth. Availability of ICT has allowed teachers to supplement their teaching materials to make their classes more interesting, and has nurtured students’ curiosity and problem-solving skills by providing them access to a wealth of information far beyond what is available in the few textbooks they have. Because of this impact, demand for use of laptops by students and school staff far exceeds the capacity that the current availability of computers can meet.

Suruacá, like many isolated communities in the Brazilian Amazon, is not connected to the electrical grid, and there's little chance of this occurring anytime soon. To charge its existing laptops, the school had a small photovoltaic system. Now, the school has secured five more laptops to meet demand, and improved on the existing photovoltaic system to run the new machines.

The Suruacá School Electrification Expansion Project has expanded the capacity of the existing photovoltaic system in the community's only school. It can now power twice the number of laptops available to students and teachers. They have been provided with increased access to information and support for research and curriculum development. The expanded system also powers a freezer necessary to store food for a school lunch program, giving students access to nutritious lunches and two daily snacks and improving child nutrition in the area.

Through CEN’s strategy of support through mentorship in creative problem-solving, CEN has fostered greater self-reliance and strengthened the community’s capacity to solve this and future problems on its own.

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The Problem

School computers with captionLaptops and internet service in Suruacá have brought many benefits to the community, but the availability of the computers is limited while demand is very high. Until recently, all residents in Suruacá shared five laptops located in the telecenter. Several years ago, the school secured an additional five laptops for teacher and student use; however, need still exceeds availability. Teachers are still often unable to gain the access they need to develop their curriculum or present videos. Students, too, are faced with too few computers for researching subjects and completing homework.

Teachers also use the computers for teacher training. Teachers are required to continue their education, but the expense of traveling and staying in the city for weeks at a time is a burden on teachers, their families, and the community they serve. Access to the computers and internet allow them to do portions of their continuing education from their community.

The shortage of computers for teaching and research poses a constant challenge for teachers and students, undermining the quality of education in the community.

Powering additional computers, however, is a real challenge. Suruacá, like many isolated communities in the Brazilian Amazon, is not connected to the electrical grid, and there is little chance of this occurring anytime soon. Due to the cost of fuel, the community is limited to operating its generator only two to three nights a week for two or three hours at a time. Electricity is unavailable when school is in session. To provide power to the computers and internet access, the telecenter and school use alternative methods.

Photovoltaic power, which needs relatively limited power and is cost-effective compared to most other options, is used. The school’s photovoltaic ("PV") system only has the capacity to power five laptops for a few hours each day. The PV system for the nearby telecenter is also being utilized to its capacity. Learn more about how PV Systems Operate.

Poor child nutrition

The lack of adequate electricity also challenges efforts by community leaders and the school to improve the quality of nutrition among school-age children, which negatively affects student learning and concentration. In an effort to reduce hunger and improve child nutrition, the Brazilian government provides rural schools, including the school in Suruacá, with a regular budget for purchasing meat and other food so they can offer free lunches to children.

Because a regular supply of fresh meat that meets government guidelines is not available locally, the government supplied a freezer so that the school could purchase meat elsewhere and store it. Without electricity, however, the school is unable to operate the freezer and so unable to provide badly needed lunches to students.

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Background

Escola Municipal Ensino Fundamental Joao Franco Sarmento is the only school in Suruacá, an isolated community located on the west side of the Tapajós River of the Brazilian Amazon. The closest city is Santarém, which is a six-hour boat ride from Suruacá. The school currently serves about 177 students between first and 10th grade, as well as 25 adults who are also enrolled.

Information and communication technology in the community

In December 2003, prior to the establishment of CEN, CEN’s director, Bob Bortner, coordinated the Brazil Telecenter Project with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. This project provided Suruacá with a solar-powered community telecenter containing three computers and internet access. Two more laptops were later added. When the telecenter opened in Suruacá, the Prefecture of Santarém committed to the construction of a badly needed new building to replace the existing school building. The community had been pressuring the municipal government for a new school for some time, and the opening of the telecenter helped to make the school a reality.

At the citizens’ request, CEN helped to educate the community on the opportunities the technology affords. The computers currently are not only helping the students and community members to gain technological training, but they are also increasing needed communication between Suruacá and other communities. For example, community members now have access to world markets through which to sell their locally made goods. The community hopes to expand its current system to increase the number of residents who can utilize the technology and to provide students with additional educational resources and support.

Suruacá, like many isolated communities in the Brazilian Amazon, is not connected to the electrical grid. Due to the cost of fuel and low income levels in the community, it is not currently possible to provide electricity for more than a few hours a few nights a week using the community’s generator. With electricity not available during the hours when the laptops are often used, both the telecenter and school must provide power to the computers and internet access using alternative methods.

The computer equipment in both Suruacá’s telecenter and school is powered by a battery-powered photovoltaic system, which can only generate power when the sun shines. PV power is a cost-effective option that uses a relatively limited amount of energy. Learn more about PV systems operate.

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Project Objectives

The goals for the Suruacá School Electrification Expansion Project are to expand the capacity of the school’s PV electrical system so it can:

  • Double the number of laptops available for students and teachers at the school to 10. This is in addition to the five machines currently shared by all community members at the community telecenter.
  • Power a freezer that will enable the school to provide a nutritious lunch and two snacks daily to all students.

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Project Team

The staff of the school, led by the school secretary, Jerfesson Lima, oversaw the execution of the project. CEN advised in addition to providing financial support. CEN coached Jerfesson on determining and implementing alternative solutions to address unexpected challenges with the project’s original plan. Sassá Sarmento, who oversaw the installation of the community telecenter's PV system and is a contractor for Projeto Saúde & Alegria, a local nongovernmental organization, advised on the project and oversaw the purchase and installation of the equipment. 

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Budget

The project was completed for under $1,276, just 11.3 percent of the original estimated budget of $11,266.

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Status

Suruacá has made considerable progress toward its goals through cost-effective and creative choices in securing new technologies and equipment.

Initially, the project was set to nearly double the size of the existing PV system, requiring a new inverter and controller. However, as the school was attempting to secure funding for that equipment, the existing batteries began to fail due to the high heat and humidity of the local environment. Replacing the batteries too would have nearly doubled the cost of the project, and the batteries would likely need replacement again in approximately four years.

Instead of expanding the entire system, members of the school community came up with an innovative solution that not only allowed them to meet most of the project’s goals more quickly, but also eliminated the need to replace the expensive batteries every few years. First, they purchased a larger solar power inverter for about $200 for their existing solar system. They also salvaged two photovoltaic panels from another community project that had become inoperable in order to generate 250 amperes of additional capacity. This, combined with recharging the notebooks during the two-hour window when the community runs a diesel generator, allows them now to power up to nine laptops for several hours a day, except during periods of extended rain and clouds when the solar system doesn’t generate enough electricity. On those days, they can only use the computers for a few hours.

In addition, the school secured a modem, provided by CEN, and five new notebook computers. The community also negotiated free internet from Vivo, the cellphone provider in the area, in return for Vivo locating a cell tower in the community. These steps in securing new technologies have made a substantial difference for Suruacá students and teachers. 

Even after adding the larger inverter, the PV system still did not have the capacity to power the school’s freezer. The school secured a commitment from the municipality to provide 50 liters of fuel for a generator to power the freezer. This is enough to keep the freezer running for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening for three weeks each month, which keeps the freezer just cold enough to prevent meat purchased in the city of Santarém from thawing. With this more reliable freezer, Suruacá can access another government program that allows it to purchase the food it needs to provide nutritious, daily school lunches to students. Given that the school currently only has enough fuel for three weeks a month, it is not a perfect or full solution, but it does represent significant progress toward the school's objective.

CEN's role in the project

While CEN did provide a limited amount of financial support for the project, CEN’s focus was not to just give money. Our objective was to strengthen the community’s – and its leaders' – capacity to solve this and future problems on their own. We accomplished this by supporting the school’s and community’s own efforts to achieve the project’s core objectives.

CEN helped map a project plan with community leaders, raised funds for the project on our own and facilitated the community’s efforts to secure additional funds. CEN coached the school and community during community visits and provided advice and counseling through email, phone and over Facebook. Through mentorship, CEN fostered the superior flexibility and deeper critical thinking skills that allowed them to recognize flaws in their initial plan. They were able to use greater creativity and problem-solving skills to both envision and execute a revised strategy. As a result of CEN’s efforts, community leaders, including the school’s secretary, Jerfesson Lima, are better equipped to find independently adaptive, creative and flexible solutions for their community.

Although many of the initial project’s original objectives have now been met, several have yet to be resolved:

  • Though the freezer is able to keep cool enough to provide lunches to students, they still need electricity to power it beyond the three weeks per month. The community is currently learning about different solutions, and CEN is providing support and coaching to community leaders as they decide on options moving forward.
  • The internet modem and router, provided by CEN, is still dependent on the existing PV system. Now that the batteries have failed for the PV system, it can only operate during days without heavy overcast. Otherwise, internet access is available only in the limited hours in the evening when the generator is running. One idea is to connect a battery backup, as the power drain would be fairly small.

Over the next several months, CEN will continue to work with the school’s secretary to find innovative solutions to these remaining challenges.

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Anticipated Impact

In Suruacá, computer and internet access has improved the quality of education in the community. Both teachers and students now have access to a wide range of resources from all over the world. There are now nearly double the number of computers available in Suruacá. Students are now better taught to think for themselves. They have access to learning materials and can explore topics and subjects they’re interested in online. As the school secretary, Jerfesson Lima, said, “The internet is their library.”

Teachers now have additional support for curriculum planning. They’re able to connect with others and find resources they need to create interesting lessons for the students. Teachers have also been able to cut the expenses of extended travel to their continuing education courses. With computer access, teachers are completing professional training from Suruacá and reducing the time spent away from their community.

With computers, teachers and students have increased opportunities to utilize new media in their education. They can show videos, share presentations, and conduct research projects. Everyone will have greater freedom to communicate through email and other online platforms that link this small community with the world.

Improving access to electricity in the community has also helped the school to provide students with healthy, nutritious lunches and snacks, considerably improving child nutrition. Supporting the community as it sought to obtain needed electricity was a simple solution, but one that will have lasting and immediate impacts on the lives of the children, students and community members of Suruacá.

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