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Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2017, click here.
In a highly connected world where nearly everyone is just a text or tweet away, there still exist many remote, off-grid regions where communities don’t have access to information and resources that open up educational opportunities.
Arizona State University Assistant Professor Laura Hosman is working to change that with SolarSPELL, a portable, solar-powered digital library that comes with its own digital Wi-Fi hotspot, able to function without electricity or existing internet connectivity.
Her innovative device was awarded one of the inaugural PLuS Alliance Prizes this weekend at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in London. The $50,000 prizes recognize research and education innovation.
The PLuS Alliance is a unique international collaboration between ASU, King’s College London and UNSW Sydney. Launched in February 2016, the PLuS Alliance enables research-led solutions to global challenges while expanding access to world-class learning.
“I've been working with students in project-based classes to come up with technologies that would be both useful and appropriate,” Hosman said. “It's been a process of continually simplifying technology to make it more relevant for people. Now, we have a library that can fit inside a backpack.”
The SolarSPELL library is full of educational resources. The only thing needed to access the information is a laptop, smartphone or iPad.
Hosman was recognized in the Education Innovation category. UNSW Professor Veena Sahajwalla was awarded the Research Innovation award for her work in recycling science to enable global industries to safely utilize toxic and complex wastes as low-cost alternatives to virgin raw materials and fossil fuels.
“Dr. Hosman and Professor Sahajwalla are contemporaries in research and education innovation,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “They’re truly impacting their fields and bringing about a positive difference with proven global application. The level of competition for the inaugural PLuS Alliance Prize was awe-inspiring, and we’re already looking forward to the nominees for the 2018 Prize.”
The information in SolarSPELL is curated to include as much localized information as possible. This allows the device to teach things like science and mathematics, but also to preserve local indigenous knowledge.
Like a community library, it’s meant to be a hub for people of all ages, aligning with ASU’s mission of expanding access and serving communities.
“This project hits on a lot of ASU's charter aspirations,” said Hosman, who holds a joint appointment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “I'm all for engaging globally and providing access to those who don't have it.”
Hosman and ASU engineering students brought SolarSPELL to a handful of Pacific islands this summer, creating content specific to the region in addition to hands-on lesson plans. The trip also provided the ASU students with an eye-opening experience.
“Two of my students who traveled with me had never left Arizona before,” Hosman said. “These opportunities are always transformational for ASU students, and I love that aspect of it.”
Video by John Hebrank and Brandon Main
Judging the shortlisted PLuS Alliance Awards candidates from across the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia were six industry leaders including former LinkedIn Vice President Ellen Levy, now managing director of Silicon Valley Connect.
“Innovation in research and education is vital to advancing society in a positive direction, whether by addressing some of the biggest challenges our world faces today, or creating new impactful opportunities,” said Levy, who also will be co-chairing the ASU Innovative Network Council with Crow.
The panel included the three presidents of the PLuS Alliance universities, NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer Mary O’Kane and former Vice President of GE Medical Europe Timothy Irish.
Two additional awards recognized global excellence. Narayana Murthy, an Indian IT industrialist and co-founder of Infosys, received the PLuS Alliance Prize for Global Leadership, and CRISPR researcher Francisco Mojica won the PLuS Alliance Prize for Global Innovation.
Top photo: Assistant Professor Laura Hosman has traveled with ASU students to a number of Pacific Islands (including Vanuatu, pictured), where they worked with Peace Corps volunteers on training and implementation of the SolarSPELL digital library. Photo by Bruce Baikie