On Campus: Faculty News

During her two years in Ghana, Suzanne Buchele worked with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project to bring computers to children in that country.

Computer Science Professor Returns From Two Years of Teaching in Ghana

Suzanne Buchele, associate professor of computer science, returned to Southwestern last fall after two years of teaching students in the West African country of Ghana.

Buchele received a Fulbright Award to teach at Ashesi University College, a private liberal arts college in Ghana’s capital city of Accra. The university was founded in 2002 by Patrick Awuah, a native of Ghana who earned an engineering degree from Swarthmore College and later became financially independent after working for Microsoft. “Patrick wanted to do something to help his country,” Buchele explains. “Most good students in Ghana go abroad for college, which creates a real ‘brain drain’ for that country.”

Ashesi is the only liberal arts college in West Africa. The university had just been approved for Fulbright Awards at the time Buchele applied, and she became the first Fulbright Scholar to go there.

Although Buchele was originally supposed to spend just a year in Ghana, her Fulbright grant was renewed so she ended up spending two years there. During her second year at Ashesi, she was asked to serve as the university’s acting dean of academic affairs.

“It was an amazing process to be part of a new school,” Buchele says. “We made several new policy decisions each week.” Buchele helped Ashesi put new procedures in place for student advising and registration. She also helped Ashesi adopt an examination honor system for selected classes, the first such honor code in West Africa.

During her second year in Ghana, Buchele also helped with a pilot project to distribute computers to children in Ghana through the Massachusetts-based foundation, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). The organization distributed computers to 40 students in a fourth-grade school in Accra.

As a result of her involvement with the OLPC project, Buchele had the opportunity to meet the president of Ghana, as well as the ministers of education, finance and communications. She also learned quite a bit about the educational system in Ghana. In addition to infrastructure problems, she says there is a shortage of qualified teachers, school buildings and textbooks.

Students face many other obstacles as well. While children in Ghana are technically entitled to a free basic education up to junior high school, many of them have to help their families in the fields or carry water to their houses. The monthly household income in some villages in Ghana is only about $10 a month, which makes it difficult for families to purchase the supplies and uniforms children need for school.

“The laptop program is good because it gives children access to education even if they can’t get to school,” Buchele says. (For more information on OLPC, visit http://laptop.org/.) Buchele gave several presentations on her experience in Ghana to the campus community last fall, and also shared her experience with OLPC in Ghana at the 8th Annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, which was held in Colorado in October.

Buchele says the Fulbright experience has made her a much better teacher. In addition to learning how to encourage more classroom participation and interaction, she says she learned a lot about global issues she can address in her classes.

“It was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says.

Lucas Adams

Kinesiology Professor Works With Olympic Swimmers

The summer Olympics in Beijing provided an opportunity for a Southwestern kinesiology professor to expand his research.

Scott McLean, associate professor of kinesiology, spent a week working with the U.S. Olympic swim team at their training camp at Stanford University just before they left for Beijing. Along with colleagues from the United States Olympic Training Center and Arizona State University, McLean helped the Olympic swimmers improve their starting performance.

Using video and a starting block instrumented with sensors to measure the forces produced by the hands and feet, McLean and his colleagues were able to provide the swimmers with critical information about their start performance. “We were able to give them instantaneous feedback on what technique modifications produced the best starts,” he says.

McLean says a number of the swimmers were able to achieve faster speeds with improved trajectories, which corresponded to increased start distances of 10–15 centimeters. “In races that are often decided by hundredths of a second, getting 10–15 centimeters farther out on the start is huge,” he says.

Swimmers McLean had a chance to work with included Dara Torres, the 41-year-old mother who won two medals at the games, as well as several current and former University of Texas swimmers who competed in the games.

“Dara was one of our big success stories,” McLean says. “At the Olympic Trials, it appeared that her start needed some work. She was lifting her head too high and not doing enough with her lower body. By adjusting her head position and her arm position, we were able to improve her speed off the block without negatively affecting her trajectory. She swam nearly two-tenths of a second faster at the Olympic Games. We like to think that we had a hand in that.”

In all, McLean and his colleagues worked with about two-thirds of the U.S. Olympic swim team. The swimmers thanked McLean by signing a large Olympic banner for him, which he has framed and hung in his office.

“This experience was the highlight of my professional career,” McLean says. “It brought together everything I have worked on for the past 15 years.”

McLean plans to spend his sabbatical this spring working on a newer design of the instrumented starting block that is more economical and more portable. “Eventually I would like to be prepared to go to a pool and set it up when a coach calls,” he says.

Kas Kramer, a senior kinesiology major at Southwestern, is helping McLean with his research as part of her capstone project.

In the meantime, McLean is bringing this new technology to the Southwestern swim program, where he is working with each swimmer to develop his/her best start.

“The swim team here at Southwestern benefits greatly from Dr. McLean’s research,” says interim co-coach Nicole Kaupp. “It is great to have someone with his expertise working with our swimmers on a daily basis.”