University of Delaware senior Eric McGinnis had never been to Haiti before March, but now he’s eager to return. If he does, some young students, and a few his own age, will probably be happy to see him.
McGinnis, a computer sciences major in the Honors Program, spent a week in and near Cap-Haitien, a city of about 190,000 on the northern side of the country, working on a service project that grew out of a class he took last year on how to develop educational games for computers.
Haiti “was totally different. I was out of my element — in a good way,” said McGinnis, who lives in Catasaugua, Pa., near Allentown.
He worked at a school in a rural area outside Cap-Haitien, creating an easy-to-use computer application that translates basic English phrases into Creole, the primary language in Haiti.
The school was “almost like in a jungle,” a drive of 45 minutes to an hour over unpaved roads leading out of the city, he said. “It was probably 15 miles, but it felt like a lot longer.”
McGinnis was in Haiti because of his familiarity with XO laptop computers, low-budget models developed by the nonprofit organization One Laptop per Child, which aims to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children. He had his first experience with the XO laptop last year, in a class taught by Dr. Lori Pollock, with projects that included developing games for use in a public school in Chester, Pa.
Pollock and a UD graduate research assistant, Richard Burns, accompanied McGinnis to Haiti. A group from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte also made the trip. Two nonprofit organizations, Waveplace Foundation and Mothering Across Continents, helped coordinate the project.
The computer application McGinnis developed works “more like a flash-card application than a translator.” It uses symbols used to denote about 80 basic words and phrases like “hello,” “goodbye,” “my name is …” and “how do you feel?” — “things you would learn in a first-year French, Spanish or German class,” he said.
The application was modeled on a Creole translation app that McGinnis had installed on his iPhone.
By using the application, the Americans were able to communicate with the Haitians, and the Haitians were able to build their English vocabulary, McGinnis said.
“Even in limited amount of time, I saw improvement in their pronunciations and vocabulary,” he said.
“Haitians want to learn how to use computers, how to look things up on the Internet,” he said. In the impoverished country, “if you can speak English, you can work as a translator and have access to other jobs, so you can make money.”
McGinnis said he spent most of his time working with college-age Haitian “mentors,” showing them enough about using the XO laptops so that they could provide instruction to the younger children, the equivalent of second- through eighth-graders in the United States.
“I hope we taught the mentors enough to sustain the program after we left,” he said.
Although Cap-Haitien suffered relatively minor damage during the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Port au Prince and the rest of southern Haiti, McGinnis said he found the city “very rundown, dirty, hectic, nothing like anything I had seen before.”
“My first impression was that we were in over our heads,” he said. “But after a day or two, we realized that this was no more intimidating than if a person from Haiti was visiting New York City for the first time.”
McGinnis said he would like to create a more sophisticated version of the English-to-Creole translator that the Haitians could download onto their computers via the Internet. And he would like to return to Haiti to check on the progress of the people he helped.
He won’t be doing it before graduation on May 26, but he may have a chance before he leaves the university for good.
“I’ll be a Ph.D. student at UD for four or five years,” he said, “so they’ve got me for the long haul.”