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This summer, 25 Penn students will set up Internet connections and computer labs in Mali. With rapid technological growth threatening to leave developing nations behind, a group of Penn students and faculty hope to use the Internet this summer to bring even the world's poorest nations up to date. Twenty-five University students will travel to Bamako, Mali, to help set up a computer network in the French-speaking country that ranks as the fourth poorest in the world. "They might be the fourth poorest country in the world, but the enthusiasm that they have matches that of any country," said Engineering Professor Sohrab Rabii said, the project's faculty instructor "[The students] will have the opportunity to experience and learn about Mali and West Africa and the issues of technology and its role in improving the quality of life for people in the developing world," Sun said. Following a meeting last winter with Mali's government, the Engineering School agreed to set up Internet connections and computer labs at an elementary school and another undecided location. The Penn students will spend a month in the country. The Internet connections will be made possible via a wireless network to Afribone, an Internet Service Provider, and the team will also train students from the University of Mali to maintain and repair the facilities after the team leaves. Engineering School Director for Academic Affairs Joe Sun, who is part of Penn's delegation to Mali, recollected how even though computers had already been donated to a center there, the boxes had remained unopened because of the lack of technological savviness in that country. "My hope is that this will enable teachers to have access to information that will aid them in teaching students," Sun said. "They have nothing right now." The 25 participating students will receive course credit while in Mali. As part of the program, they will attend a class this spring about the country's culture and its relationship to technology while receiving training in computer software. About 70 students from all four undergraduate schools applied for the program, Student Coordinator and Engineering submatriculant Brian Sullivan said. The students were chosen by project leaders based on their French skills, computer abilities and class standing, he said. According to Rabii, an understanding of the culture will be integral to ensuring that once the Penn team leaves, Malians will continue to maintain the computer centers. "One of the problems we expect to run into apart from the language barrier is the cultural barrier," Sullivan said. Sun noted that the country's infrastructure -- with a lack of steady electricity, poor roads and a limited telecommunication network -- means that students might have to work under difficult conditions. They may not have the electricity they need to make the computers run and it may be hard to acquire parts for maintenance. And Rabii pointed out that for many Penn students, the experience would be an eye-opener, requiring students to be in an alien culture while leading a real-world enterprise. "I don't know too much about Mali, but it's a place where we expect to make a difference," said Engineering freshman Jonathan Wanderer. Added Rabii, "Rather than going to France and ordering food, [students] will be communicating with people and culture?. It would be on a lot deeper level than sight seeing."

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