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Charles Watson '09

 

 

Since leaving HKIS, Charles Watson has spent a gap-year in Nepal and more recently Ghana, working to develop a low power-consumption computer to provide increased learning technology for students where the power supply is unstable, difficult to access, or non-existent.

Charles working on the 35 kg tubular
lead-acid battery

Charles has directed his efforts in two directions: developing a computer powered from a 12-volt DC battery source that can be charged when mains-power is available or via solar panels; and preloading the computers with Ubuntu Linux and educational content in both English and Nepali.

Charles has met with businessmen from INGOs and NGOs, manufacturers and suppliers in his quest for parts to build his computers, and has already provided 35 machines, twenty of which were delivered to a school in Nepal in December 2009.

One ‘next step’ is to pursue a sponsor/developer to champion the sourcing of low power LCD screens for his computers that would reduce their power requirement even further. Charles working on the 35kg tubular lead-acid battery In addition to the hands-on immediacy of building and delivering his computers, Charles is also endeavoring to ensure his work continues long after his gap-year work is finished, by building interest and relationships with local Nepali businessmen.

 

 DragonTales caught up with Charles and asked him some question:

How do you spend a typical day?

Students in Kaphal Danda who took turns giving
Charles a lanyard of flowers and honorary red powder

Most of the work I’m doing on the ground is finding ‘the perfect school’. The computers are quite valuable, and it is key to find a school which won’t use them inappropriately. I want hese computers to be doing what they do best – providing students access to computer-based learning. It would be a real shame if I donated three or four computers to a school, and they ended up being sold at the market, or if the school administrators used them just for office work. A lot of what I do is meeting people, visiting schools, networking, things that ensure we will find the best schools to help.

I will usually spend a day with the students and teachers, showing them the basics of how to use a computer, as often they have never used a computer before.

What were the main problems you encountered in Nepal & Ghana? How did you overcome them?

The biggest problem I encountered was trying to get the computers into the country. I had these donor-funded computers which were to be used in schools and not sold for profit. I had letters from donors, from the recipient schools, months of email exchanges proving this was not for profit, yet at every step we’d have to pay tax, driving up the cost of the computers.

While I was building the computers there were problems. In both Ghana and Nepal I’d be working one moment and the lights would be out the next. I realized pretty quickly in Nepal that I would need to run them on solar-powered batteries.

You mentioned that the projects will continue to run even without your presence, how is this possible? What arrangements do you have in place?

In Nepal, I stayed with a friend of high school teacher Mr. Friedericks. I showed him the computers and software inside and out. Now that I’m gone, he has the contact information of all the hardware manufacturers where he can get this specialized equipment, plus the information on how to build the computers. Since leaving Nepal, I’ve been forwarding emails to him from people who want to buy the solar powered computers.

The computer teachers from the five schools in Ghana that
Charles has worked alongside

Secondly, the computers are designed using locally available parts – unlike the One Laptop Per Child project, where the parts are proprietary. If the RAM in one of my computers breaks down in a school in Nangi village, they can get a replacement in a nearby town – they don’t have to wait two months for a container ship.

 

 

 

 

 

Why service and why now when most of your peers are off to college?

My parents often ask me the same thing! I’m very glad that I took this gap year, on a personal level as well as an educational one. Before taking this gap year, I wanted to study photography, as it is another huge hobby of mine (you can see the photos I’ve taken over the course of the gap year on my website, www.charlesparkerwatson. com). After working on my senior project, I saw how applicable this technology was in schools around the world, and I wanted to work on that. Although there is certainly a service component, it seemed like a mix of real-world experience, a test of my abilities, and even a chance for fun: I’ve always loved travelling, and I knew the project would be a great experience and a way to balance photography and computer science.

Will you go to college – if so where and to study what? Where do you see yourself settling?

Yes, although I will not go next year. This gap year taught me how little I really know in the field of computer science, and I’d love to learn more. I reapplied to colleges and was accepted in a few Engineering programs with a major in computer science, but I will take one more year on this project. I feel that in the next year, I can really sow the seeds for long-term success on this project.

How has the support of Ken Koo ’79 helped drive this project, who else encouraged you?

The support of the HKIS community and my fellow alums Ken Koo and Lincoln Chan has been so amazing. This project was originally going to be just six computers paid for by myself working a summer job, but the donations and help from the HKIS community pushed that number up close to one hundred. It’s been incredible how willing people have been to help and turn this idea into something tangible.

Mr. Friedericks set me up with my host in Nepal, and his interim group further helped out. There was a student-led group to Nepal (separate from the interim) which went over Chinese New Year, they also brought computers into the country.  Marcia Barham, a lower primary music teacher, helped me find a host family in Ghana. That’s not even including the many donors I met through the HKIS community who actually paid for the additional computers I’ve been distributing in the recent months. The support of the HKIS community has been so integral to the success of the project. Thanks everybody! 

 

Are you missing your family, how do you deal with that?

Not just my family, but my friends, and Hong Kong itself. Thankfully, I’ve got the blog which really helps me stay in touch with people – I feel as if I’m talking to people face to face when I write the blog. I try to update it as often as possible, and I love it when people comment on the blog or email me. In both Nepal and Ghana I always had people to talk to, both in English and my fledgling Nepali and Ewe skills. Learning at least a few phrases in the local language is also important: yesterday I had a (somewhat basic) conversation with someone on the bus in Ewe, which made me feel at home.

How HKIS helped to shape you?

HKIS opened up the world. I think the thing HKIS does best is showing students that the world is out there. You look around your math class and you see people from all over the world. You look around the high school Humanities office and you have teachers who have spent a sizeable portion of their careers working at a school in a country whose name you cannot even pronounce. Plus,there’s PEAK week in middle school and the Interim program in the high school. I would not be talking to you from Ghana right now if it weren’t for these experiences I received as an HKIS student. The school makes a real effort to show students that there is life outside of Hong Kong, and that had a huge impact on me.  

Can alumni support your project –how?

Definitely! If you want to get in touch with me so I can explain the project better, you can send an email to charles@charlesparkerwatson.com, or visit my website. Alumni and people in the HKIS community in general have so much to teach me, and guidance from alumni who often have experience in what I’m trying to do is very important. Additionally, the computer labs I’m setting up are paid for in part by donors from the HKIS community, which of course has really helped turn this project into what it is. Finally, if alumni are connected to a rural school without access to electricity, I’d be happy to hear from you – perhaps we could work something out.

Where do you envision yourself five years from now?

Graduating from college! After that, I’d really like to put what I learned in university to use and think about continuing this project. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be formalizing this project into an NGO and working to continue the project throughout college, even if the amount of time I can spend on administering the project drops to an email or two per week. After college, I could imagine returning to work on this project for a few years – it definitely has wide potential throughout the world, as many places throughout the world will not have access to electricity for decades to come.

Contact:  charles@charlesparkerwatson.com  or www.charlesparkerwatson.com

Source:  DragonTales Volume 13 Summer Edition 2010