In Pursuit of Cross-Cultural Computer
Click here for a printer-friendly version
of this article.
Airey (B.S.Cp.E., '01) came to Virginia Tech to learn how computers
work. She is leaving Tech to discover how to make computers accessible
to all individuals and communities worldwide.
Airey is one of 40 undergraduates in the country who have been
awarded the prestigious British Marshall Scholarship for a two-year
graduate program in the United Kingdom. "My graduate studies
will focus on computer speech and text processing, which is a
subsection of artificial intelligence. I'm interested in applications
such as real-time translation, where people of different languages
can converse, or the Internet could be translated into a local
language," she said.
She suspects that after earning a master's degree in the UK,
she will pursue a Ph.D. "I'm interested in contributing
to the research in the field," she said. "I'm also
interested in what I consider to be the policy aspects of computer
accessibility. Accessibility is not just an issue of technical
design, but also of cultural and political perspectives. I hope
that with a background and understanding of the technical capabilities,
I can contribute to the overall progress."
Computers in Ghana
Airey's interest in computer accessibility was sparked by spending
last summer in Ghana working on computer projects across the
country. "I went to Ghana because of an interest in African
art," she said. She spent the summer traveling around the
country helping different communities with their computer projects.
"There is a sentiment in that country that computers are
important," she said. She worked with a number of schools
in their computer labs, helped one school design a web page,
and taught some post-secondary students about the Internet and
programming. "I was there to help them learn how the computer
worked and how to control it."
Another project involved setting up computers for e-mail at two
towns in the north that work with the Binaba shop in Roanoke.
The Binaba Shop sells African artwork and sends the money back
to the village for a hospital that is being built there. "That
was a fascinating project," Airey said. "Taking the
computer to people who have never worked with it before. They
have never had exposure to the VCR, or other similar technology.
Jumping from low tech to the computer age is a big jump."
Airey said she learned many lessons about computer accessibility.
"Computers as they are today may not be designed to solve
the problems of a country like Ghana. Computers are designed
for us in the United States." She said the biggest difference
is in infrastructure. "We are not concerned about data size
because we have high-speed connections." Even more important
is a reliable supply of power. "Try running a large program
with fluctuating power," she said.
Airey met a village chief who was implementing an AIDS education
program and incorporating local healers. "I know that other
countries have similar programs. This was the first time I saw
that the computer could provide a way to help with a significant
problem. It is not all hype. These people have serious issues
with medical care and food supplies, but if a computer can offer
access to information and a way to connect to others doing similar
projects, then computers can be tools to address basic needs."
Airey's Ghanaian experience sparked a keen interest in the idea
of interface. "How do you create things that people across
many cultures can understand?" she asked. She described
how teachers in Ghana have trouble getting appropriate software
for students because of instructions that contain cultural references
like fire engines and baseball. "Getting a home run means
nothing to a culture that does not play baseball," she said.
"Also, the language for computers is English or other world
languages. How do you make African languages on a computer? How
can we introduce technologies that do not force these countries
to become what we are? How do they keep their traditions but
still take advantage of technology?"
The Freedom to Pursue Individual
Airey had been drawn to Africa by an interest in art and returned
home with questions that could take her years to answer. "Having
the Bradley Scholarship allowed me to veer from the standard
path," she said. "Knowing that there were people who
had confidence in me and supported me, allowed me to spend the
summer in Ghana instead of an industrial internship. It freed
me to make my education better."
Airey did not get interested in computers until later than most
of her computer-engineering peers. The first time she used a
computer extensively was in the 10th grade. "I realized
I didn't have a clue about what went on inside those machines.
I was interested and keenly aware that I did not know how they
worked. That is when I decided to become a computer engineer."
After making a four-year commitment to finding out how computers
work, Airey enjoyed her two microprocessor courses. "It
was satisfying to fulfill my original reason to pursue computer
engineering. By then it was not my only goal, but it was fun
to have it realized."
Airey said she also enjoyed her courses in operating systems
and data structures, where the professors made an effort to lay
out the big problems that are yet to be solved. "It appealed
to us students that if we could solve these problems, we could
get a lot of money," she said. "It was also nice to
see that all the problems have not been solved, that there is
still something for our generation to contribute."
In summarizing her Tech experience, Airey was impressed by the
care that her professors showed with attention to individual
students, even in the big classes. "I was blown away with
their willingness to be available and answer questions and direct
us to explore ideas we were interested in. It definitely exceeded
what I had expected."
Airey's interests in college have drawn her to computers, art,
and Africa. As she moves toward her studies in the U.K., she
is looking forward to her next level: exploring diverse cultural
perspectives in technological development.