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Solar-powered libraries help Syrian communities rebuild from war

ASU SolarSPELL device to help rebuild education in war-torn Syrian region.
April 21, 2023

Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria educators visit ASU to meet with SolarSPELL team

Devastated by years of civil war in Syria, a group of people establishing their own country is working with ASU's SolarSPELL team to create an education system from scratch.

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, a self-governing community that formed in 2012, is highly diverse, with residents who are from many different ethnic and religious groups.

As they work to create a new K–12 school system based on their region’s commitment to democratic principles, tolerance and gender equality, they have turned to SolarSPELL for help.

SolarSPELL is a solar-powered portable library device that was created by Laura Hosman, an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. She is director of the SolarSPELLSolarSPELL stands for Solar Powered Educational Learning Library initiative, also based at ASU.

The SolarSPELL devices work without electricity or internet connection. Each case includes a small solar panel, a microcomputer and a micro digital memory card, which contains all of the library content and some code that allows it to be accessed by any type of browser. The device creates a Wi-Fi hot spot, and users connect any Wi-Fi-capable device, such as smartphones, tablets or laptops, to access and download the content.

Nearly 500 devices are being used in 15 countries, many in remote areas with little or no electricity or internet. The libraries are filled with content that is customized to the local community’s needs.

Typically, Hosman and a SolarSPELL team travel to countries to train local people on the devices. In the train-the-trainer model, those people then go to the remote areas and teach others how to use SolarSPELL. But the ASU team was unable to travel to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria because the situation in Syria is still unstable. So three educators from the independent region visited ASU for several days in April for training.

The visit capped a busy time for SolarSPELL, which also has expanded to three countries in Africa within the past few months:

• In January, the team traveled to Malawi to launch the SolarSPELL Health Library in partnership with the Malawi Peace Corps Response Advancing Health Professionals program and the Kamuzu University of Health Sciences. The libraries were loaded with nursing and midwifery information. Typically, nursing students in Malawi travel to remote locations for several weeks of clinical experience and must carry a stack of reference books with them. But now they can access reference information via SolarSPELL. The students also can use it to complete coursework that’s required while they are working remotely.

• The SolarSPELL Agriculture Library debuted in Zimbabwe in partnership with Foundations for Farming, a nonprofit that teaches the principles of conservation farming. The team trained the foundation workers to use the libraries to teach farmers. ASU students took the foundation’s content and created interactive lessons with videos – ideal for a population whose literacy level is not high. Lessons included information on how to grow cabbage organically and how to preserve tomatoes after harvest.

• In 2020, SolarSPELL began a partnership with the Peace Corps in which volunteers would be trained to use SolarSPELL. The pandemic suspended that work as the Peace Corps evacuated its volunteers. Now, the Peace Corps is returning to many countries, and SolarSPELL held a training session for volunteers in Lesotho, who then trained schoolteachers in their villages on how to use the education library. Two members of the SolarSPELL team are returned Peace Corps volunteers, including one who served in Lesotho.

RELATED: ASU nursing student changing lives across the globe

Content in Arabic, Kurdish and Syrian

SolarSPELL became connected to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria in a unique way. Last year, one of the initiative’s major donors called Hosman, excited to tell her about the book “The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage and Justice,” by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

“The story is that women picked up weapons and became part of the army that defeated ISIS in northeast Syria,” said Hosman, who also is an associate professor in the Polytechnic School in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

“It’s so well written and gives the spectrum of what women did because they truly valued freedom and independence when they had nothing left to lose.

“Our supporter said, ‘This resonates with me. Why don’t you contact the author and see if she thinks SolarSPELL could be a positive addition to this territory in northeast Syria?’ ” Hosman said.

It took months for Hosman to connect with Lemmon, who agreed that SolarSPELL could be a huge help to the rebuilding region.

Though it is not recognized diplomatically and is therefore ineligible for most humanitarian aid, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria has been governing itself and creating an education curriculum. At a recent training session on the Tempe campus, Hosman described how the SolarSPELL libraries have been used in other communities and heard from the visitors how they wanted to load the devices with their own educational content.

“We curate over 90% of the content in our libraries because it’s so labor intensive to create it,” Hosman said. Typically, ASU students find open-access content on the internet. Sometimes users want to have specific textbooks downloaded into the libraries but that can create copyright issues.

“So, it will be wonderful if you have staff to create the content because that’s the ideal. That’s what teachers want,” she said.

The visitors were excited to learn that the libraries can promote self-directed learning among students, especially when they create SolarSPELL clubs.

Bruce Baikie, co-founder and tech advisor of SolarSPELL, told the visitors how the devices have become accessible to entire communities.

“We have several examples where, for example, Thursday evening is community night, and the parents come to connect to see what their students are learning,” said Baikie, a senior sustainability fellow and adjunct faculty member at ASU.

“We had another example where a teacher brought it home, and the students came and did homework outside of his house. What was interesting was the parents also started coming every night.”

Baikie said that in Fiji, student attendance at school increased after the parents had regular weekly access to SolarSPELL and became excited by the possibilities.

All of the content for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is translated into the region’s three main languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Syrian.

The newest library is also special for another reason: SolarSPELL worked with Sesame Street to include videos of Sesame Street characters in Kurdish. The videos, available on YouTube, originally were created for refugee children, but most of them don’t have internet connection.

“And that’s exactly what SolarSPELL exists for – people without internet connection,” Hosman said.

“The videos are about tackling big emotions and things kids can benefit from having explained to them by these universally popular characters.”

SolarSPELL continuously updates its libraries in partnership with the users, and students will work on finding more Kurdish content for future versions of the library for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Woman writing on white board in Arabic

Noha Labani, a PhdD student in English from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, writes "geography," "mountains" and "maps" in Arabic on a white board, signifying the features on the home page of the SolarSPELL devices heading to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Labani provided translation during a recent visit of education officials from the autonomous region. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Teaching gender equality

Two of the educators from the autonomous region gave a talk during their visit on how they’re reimagining education after decades of discrimination, ethnic animosity and violence. More than 200 schools were destroyed and nearly 300 were heavily damaged, they said.

“But what should we teach? What kind of society do we need?” said Bahjat Mohammed Hussein, a senior education official in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

“If we teach the same curriculum it’s the same problem,” he said.

The new curriculum focuses on tolerance and inclusivity.

“The curriculum should be based on human rights. How can we learn together? How can we accept the other? We have to undo the mistakes of ISIS.

“There must be human rights, women’s rights and the people have to know that there are different ideas, different ethnicities, different cultures and different traditions. If we want to live together, we have to put all this in the curriculum.”

Gender equality is critical, Hussein said.

“You have to go back in history to see what women have done. They are not less than you, and they can take their part in policy and the economy and education.

“We are starting to change the mentality and as a result for the first time we have girls who play soccer and ride bicycles. Before you couldn’t see such things.”

Dilber Youssef, deputy director of the education and training authority of the region, said she was grateful for the work of so many ASU students on the library. Typically, students work on finding and curating content through coursework or as interns or student workers for SolarSPELL. The newest library included work in translation, which was done as capstone projects by graduate students, including an ASU Online student in Yemen.

“It gives her much hope for the success of the program to see that it is truly by student for students,” said Noha Labani, a PhD candidate in English and student worker for SolarSPELL, who served as a translator during the visit.

Youssef said of the students: “You joined SolarSPELL because you wanted to make a difference and to have a positive impact. You are showing up and you are making a difference.”

Top image: Senior education officials Dilber Youssef and Bahjat Mohammed Hussein (center) from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, learn about SolarSPELL from Laura Hosman, an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, right, during a training session  in Wrigley Hall on the Tempe campus. PhD student Noha Labani (left) provided translation. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News


Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


ASU nursing student changing lives across the globe

April 21, 2023

All that stood between Rachel Thompson and completing a crucial piece of a project nearly three years in the making was a little more than 10,000 miles and a few flight connections.

The Arizona State University Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation Doctor of Nursing Practice, or DNP, student traveled to Malawi, Africa, with ASU's SolarSPELL team to help with the delivery of, and training for, 10 solar-powered digital health libraries to nursing schools there.  Rachel Thompson wears a green top and glasses as she talks with a student in a patterned shirt in a classroom on campus in Malawi. Doctor of Nursing Practice student Rachel Thompson was able to pursue her dreams of making an impact in global health thanks to opportunities provided at Arizona State University. Photo courtesy Rachel Thompson Download Full Image

“The students were wonderful. They were so engaged, and seeing how enthusiastic they were to have this resource was exciting. I could tell it would completely change their education,” Thompson said.

It’s a resource she helped curate and develop content for as part of the culminating project for her degree. 

Thompson always knew she wanted to use her nursing education and experience to reach global populations. She graduated from Edson College with a Bachelor of Science in nursing in 2016 and began working in critical care in California. She had a medical mission planned for 2020 but it was canceled due to the pandemic. Later that year, she would get another opportunity to pursue that dream with SolarSPELL.

During her first semester in the DNP program, she took an elective course on equity and social justice in health care taught by Edson College Clinical Associate Professor Heather Ross.

"In our first class, she informed us about a global health education initiative she was a co-director of at ASU called SolarSPELL. I immediately wanted to be involved and started volunteering with SolarSPELL in the fall of 2020. I worked with other students in differing undergraduate and graduate programs to create a nursing midwifery program for the SolarSPELL library intended to be implemented in South Sudan," Thompson said.

Eventually, that led to the opportunity to work on this project in partnership with SolarSPELL, the Malawi Peace Corps Response Advancing Health Professionals Program and Kamuzu University of Health Sciences in Malawi.

RELATED: Solar-powered libraries help Syrian communities rebuild from war

Edson College faculty member Heather Ross poses with Rachel Thompson and a SolarSPELL device in Malawi

Edson College Clinical Associate Professor Heather Ross (left) was the first person to introduce Rachel Thompson to SolarSPELL. Three years later, the two were on a trip to Malawi together. Photo courtesy Rachel Thompson

A history of collaboration 

SolarSPELL at ASU is a global educational initiative that combines curated digital libraries, solar-power, offline technology, and the training to build information literacy and internet-ready skills in offline environments. The aim is to reach people and places still unconnected, which is about half of the world.

Ross first broached the topic of a nursing and health collaboration with SolarSPELL in 2017. She recognized the potential impact health-focused libraries could have on global health outcomes and quickly established a pathway for Edson College students to get involved.

It is through that connection that DNP students in particular have been working with SolarSPELL for their doctoral projects for a few years. Thompson is at least the ninth student whose culminating project is related to SolarSPELL.

In fact, she collaborated with a pair of DNP students who graduated in 2022 to continue their work to create health-focused training modules for health-care students, educators and practitioners in the developing world.

“Those students conducted evidence-based practice workshops for nursing educators at three schools in Guyana in 2022. Building on their experience, Rachel worked with the SolarSPELL team to deliver an evidence-based practice workshop as a central component of the SolarSPELL health library training in Malawi,” Ross said.

A lesson in global health

A trip to Malawi wasn’t actually part of the initial plan for this project. The group was supposed to travel to Uganda in November 2022 to attend a Peace Corps conference where they would “train the trainers”, in this case, Peace Corps volunteers. But, the conference was canceled due to an Ebola outbreak.

It was a disappointing moment for Thompson. She’d done so much to prepare. On the educational side of things, there was a ton of time and work put in to develop and curate the library's content and prepare in-person presentations. 

On the personal side, she had to secure a visa and required travel vaccines, take time off work and pay for the trip out of pocket.

In the end, the experience turned out to be one big lesson in how global health works.

“I learned that you must have a lot of patience when working in the global health space. That was something Dr. Ross tried to teach me early on when our first trip got canceled because I’m very type A so I want to know every detail. I had to trust that when it comes to these things, however, it’s meant to be is how it will work out, and usually, it works out well. That’s also a life lesson I’ve learned personally as well through all of this,” Thompson said.

Her hopes of delivering the libraries in person were renewed when the team pivoted and decided that Kamuzu University of Health Sciences in Malawi would be an excellent location to implement those libraries.

On the ground in Malawi

So, it was with both great preparation and anticipation that she embarked on a 32-hour journey in January to make the life-changing trip to Malawi.

"I spent a lot of time preparing for my presentation in Malawi. As a guest in their country, I wanted to ensure that I was offering this new knowledge in a way that was not insulting their current practices,” she said.

The content Thompson worked on was customized to align with the cultural practices and norms of the region with consideration given to the resources available.

Students have internet access on the two Kamuzu University of Health Sciences campuses the ASU group visited — in Blantyre and Lilongwe. However, for some of their clinical rotations, where they get hands-on experience with patients, they travel for weeks at a time to remote villages that do not have internet access.

“The current setup is that they carry library books, most of which are bulky and assigned to one individual, usually a group leader,” said Patrick Mapulanga, senior assistant librarian at Kamuzu University of Health Sciences campus in Lilongwe.

In total, the ASU group spent a little more than a week on the ground in Malawi traveling to Blantyre and Lilongwe for campus visits. During those visits, they met with administrators, faculty, students and librarians. 

This was when Thompson was able to bring her work to life facilitating workshops introducing the modules, and the types of content available and describing their usability for each stakeholder.

“Overall, they seemed eager about the concept of evidence-based practice. Currently, the university incorporates research courses in their curriculum, so while they weren’t familiar with this exact process, it was apparent they already implement many stages of the process, just not in this systematic approach that makes it easy to follow or easy to teach,” she said.

Almost immediately, the workshop attendees identified the ripple effect this new resource would have across their communities.

“Incorporating evidence-based practice modules and information into the curriculum can help students become more knowledgeable, skilled and confident health-care providers. This can lead to improved patient outcomes and better quality of care,” Mapulanga said.

Thompson also created a PowerPoint presentation for faculty to download as a lesson plan and teach. That was something the faculty were especially interested in, as it was ready to go and would be easy to incorporate into their research course.

“The evidence-based practice materials and information delivered by Rachel was very important, as it uplifted staff lecturers on how to care for patients qualitatively. This was a super-model of information generation for patient care,” said Noel Mbirimtengerenji, a senior lecturer at the University of Health Sciences campus in Lilongwe.

Mbirimtengerenji and Mapulanga both attended the workshops and said they were looking forward to all the different ways in which they could use the SolarSPELL health libraries both on campus and in the field.

Next steps

ASU Associate Professor Laura Hosman said all three partners agreed on a plan to take this pilot project through the end of 2023, “with activities designed to demonstrate the use, impact and effectiveness of the SolarSPELL health libraries.”

For her part, Thompson is working on publishing a manuscript about her experience and the results she collected. She also plans to follow up with a survey and would like to find a way to make this a legacy DNP project so future students can continue to expand and develop it.

And even though she will graduate this May with an advanced nursing practice (family nurse practitioner), DNP degree, she’s not ready to leave this all behind and plans to continue to work with SolarSPELL as much as she can even after graduation.

"SolarSPELL is an incredible organization, and this experience was life-changing in many ways for me. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside the team and travel to witness the impact SolarSPELL is making halfway around the world. I'm truly inspired by the students and faculty at KUHeS and hope to continue to be part of this incredible education initiative."

Amanda Goodman

Senior communications specialist, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation