SolarSPELL: How Saying “Yes” Changed My Grad School Experience

Sneha Pujani

Sneha Pujani

Staff Writer

I came across the SolarSPELL project as part of my Summer 2020 course, GTD 598: Innovation in Action. This class was led by Dr. Mary Jane C. Parmentier, Clinical Associate Professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU. Our project for this class was to curate and build a digital library for schools around the world with no access to internet and basic infrastructure. I was intrigued. What followed was an online class that actually met weekly on Zoom, a deep dive into the world of education technology and the opportunity to meet amazing people from all over the world. 

Let me tell you about SolarSPELL and how my summer commitment turned into volunteer work in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, effectively changing my Tbird experience. 

SolarSPELL is described as an “ultra-portable, ruggedized, education-focused digital library.” It is designed to help build the skills needed to navigate the digital age. In secluded regions of the world, the internet is a distant dream; stable electricity is god-sent. Preparing children there for the vastly online world needed some out-of-the-box thinking that led to the creation of Solar Powered Educational Learning Library (SolarSPELL). As they explain it on their website, the SolarSPELL digital library “mimics an online experience by generating its own WiFi hotspot to which any WiFi-capable device (smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc.) can connect, so that users can freely surf the library’s expansive, yet localized, content.” As of today, there are 365 SolarSPELL digital libraries in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Comoros.  

Although they have over 45,000 resources on these libraries, the team at SolarSPELL is constantly upgrading. As of today, they have The SolarSPELL Education Library, The SolarSPELL Nursing and Midwifery Library, and The SolarSPELL Biomedical Technology (BMET) Library. Each library serves a different audience and is localized to reflect the needs of the community. This is where interns, students, volunteers and staff come in. 

With strategic partners like the Peace Corps (as of July 10, 2020), SolarSPELL is making its way to assist those who need them the most. 

Personal reflection 

I work on the library called Wikipedia for School (WFS) at SolarSPELL.  Since Summer 2020, I have worked with fantastic people from around the world. Our team has revamped the then available content on WFS, making it more globally relevant. We added topics such as climate change, Brexit, BLM, and the Ethiopian Tigray crisis, along with upgrading the existing information.The previous version of WFS was designed by an NGO from UK, making the content highly Euro-centric. Our team went through over 15,000 articles, adding missing information based on interviews with teachers and educators on the ground who use WFS. We went down different rabbit holes to understand education systems in the different areas WFS serves and explored technologies that challenged our project management skills for our library. Wikipedia now has our undying respect! Our team had American, Jordanian, and Indian education backgrounds, which led to some scintillating discussions. We are now in the process of completing “Phase 1” of the new WFS and couldn’t be prouder! 

I will conclude by mentioning two things that will always stay with me after I graduate. 

First, the commitment of SolarSPELL to improve and evolve. They have academics, librarians, staff and students join in as members, interns and volunteers to observe and analyze the problem with fresh eyes, every semester. This is one of the coolest examples of design thinking I have seen in action. They use experimentation, ideation and feedback, something I would not have associated with an NGO’s operation. SolarSPELL ultimately reflects the ideas shared by Ann Mei Chang in her book, Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good. This book is on the same lines as The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, but for social impact. As a student of global management, it was an insightful study. 

Secondly, I met the most amazing people who came from different walks of life and connected over our shared project. Dr. Hosman, Courtney, and Frank, thank you for making this such a fun and enriching experience of my grad school! And of course, SolarSPEll allowed me to meet my co-founder, Lubna Alsaka. It was by working together during summer and then working as intern/volunteer thereafter, we bonded and created our start-up Eldunari. It was in March 2021 that I finally met Lubna in person, after working with her for nine months! A long weekend in New Orleans with Luban and her family was a priceless experience–A very Tbird thing to do, if I may say so! To read more about the story behind Eldunari, click here.

As I reflect back on my decision to take the GTD 598 course and my time at SolarSPELL, one thing stands out. You may not know how each decision you make affects your life, but you won’t know until you say yes! 

I will leave you with this quote and wish you a wonderful day! 

P.S Do check out SolarSPELL at https://solarspell.org/.  They are awesome! 

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