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After 28 years at Whitman College, Ken Paine, a technology services programmer and analyst, calls himself a dinosaur, but he is helping to bring the computer age to hundreds of Ugandan students. On a recent trip to visit his daughter, Michelle Paine, who teaches primary school in that country, Paine brought along microscopes, test tubes, Bunsen burners, and other surplus laboratory materials from Whitman’s science departments, almost doubling the school’s supply.

Michelle Paine has been teaching in Uganda since June 2008, and plans to continue until December 2010 in this school of about 1,300 students where there are often more than 100 students per classroom. It also doubles as a boarding school for many orphaned students. Teachers struggle with overcrowded conditions and scant resources, as well as the presence of tropical diseases like malaria.

“She’s supposed to be there,” Paine said of his daughter’s teaching. “As a dad it’s a little disconcerting, but she’s in good hands.”

Ken Paine Ken Paine with Ugandan schoolteachers

Paine decided to do more than support his daughter’s efforts, however — and that is how the idea to supply lab equipment was conceived. Paine’s visit this spring with his son, Devin, was such a success that his wife plans to fly to Uganda in August 2009 with the family’s older son and deliver more supplies. Critical needs also include more textbooks, money for food, and a security fence to encircle the school.

“The teacher will have the one text book and read a paragraph three or four times, and [students] have their notebooks and they write everything down, and that’s their textbook,” Paine recalled.

Although the school’s youngest students tend to receive the most attention from visitors, Paine said he wanted to do something to benefit the secondary students, who are often overlooked. Since Paine and his son, who works for Intel in California, are both “science-minded,” lab equipment seemed like the natural choice. They even taught a few classes on gears and electrical circuits.

“What we were able to bring in a couple of suitcases probably increased what they had by almost 50 percent,” Paine said. “The kids that were there came into the classroom when we were unloading the supplies. We’d take something out of the suitcase and they’d all cheer, so it was pretty exciting. We brought two microscopes…and these kids would run outside and find something to bring in and stick in under the microscope.”

To get the equipment that made such an impression on Ugandan students, Paine sent general e-mails to campus listservs and spoke with members of the science departments and lab technicians. One Whitman professor personally donated a slinky to help teachers in Uganda demonstrate waves and motion.

After compiling a basic list of needed supplies, Paine was able to obtain materials no longer used at Whitman but invaluable to his daughter’s students. Paine also paid out of pocket to order new items from an online school supplies site.

“They’d studied that stuff in books but they’d never actually put their hands on it,” he said. “So for them it was pretty exciting.”

The Whitman community has been extremely supportive, he said.

“They’re going to try to get a couple more microscopes and some other stuff when my wife and son go over there.”

The only minor setback he encountered was when his daughter said she was hoping to find floppy discs on which the students in her computer class could store their work. Students at the school operate systems that have disc drives and are much older than computers at Whitman.

Trying to find floppy discs, he called his office at Whitman, “…and they just laughed at me.”

But he has some now. He collected some unused floppy discs from Whitman’s bookstore and the registrar's office. He also received 12 microscopes from science technicians at Whitman.

In addition all of this, he has added another project. After he left Uganda, another problem arose: The school’s only water well stopped functioning. So Paine and others are trying to raise the $4,000 needed to construct a solid long-term fix. Until it’s repaired, all who live there including small children walk one mile to get a daily water supply from an operating well — and carry it back a mile in 5-gallon cans.

Looking beyond his wife’s anticipated August trip, Paine said he would like to return to Uganda next year, if possible.

“Now that I've been there, I really want to figure out how to get more science equipment and other school supplies over there. They have such huge needs.”