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Technology, Solar Power Give Refugee Children Chance to Explore Moon, Mars, & Beyond

Oct 4 2011

Refugee camp living doesn't usually include travel to exotic places, but for 18 secondary students living near Kibuye, Rwanda, it soon will. Because of the combination of technology and solar power, these students will have a chance to explore the Moon, Mars, and Beyond as they take part in a Challenger Learning Center space mission transmitted from Wheeling Jesuit University on Friday.

The students taking part in the Moon, Mars, and Beyond e-Mission™ are Congolese refugees who have grown up in the Kizba Refugee Camp because of ongoing political conflict and fighting. The camp houses approximately 18,000 refugees of all ages.

"The students are very excited to get a chance to use computers and experience the space simulation," said Erin McDonald, director of educational programming at the camp.

McDonald is a 2003 Wheeling Jesuit graduate who is currently serving as Jesuit Refugee Services' national director. As part of her duties, she oversees educational curriculum for roughly 800 nursery school students, 4,000 primary school students, and 1,000 secondary school students. She and another WJU alumna, Kristin McCombs '05, who is a flight director at the Challenger Learning Center, were instrumental in planning the upcoming educational e-Mission.

"The whole concept of computers is difficult in the region since there is no electricity. But in 2009 a solar-powered computer lab housing 44 computers was installed," explained McDonald.

The Challenger Learning Center space simulation will allow these students a chance to experience distance learning and technology as they work on their math and science skills.

"We are counting on the sun and praying it won't be a cloudy day," said McCombs. "We began preparing for the mission last July when teachers from the camp were trained, and several of them will be on hand to assist students during the space simulation."

This is the first time the Challenger Learning Center has done a mission with Rwanda, according to Jackie Shia, director of the center, and the 15th country reached through e-Missions.

"We are very pleased to reach out to the refugee students," Shia said.

Both McCombs and McDonald were psychology students at Wheeling Jesuit and took part in student service trips and outreach. McCombs, a resident of Bethesda, OH, is now an adjunct psychology professor at the university in addition to her Challenger duties.

McDonald, a Massachusetts native, is the former director of Wheeling Jesuit's Service for Social Action Center. She worked at WJU for five years before accepting her current position.

Jesuit Refugee Service is an international Catholic organization at work in more than 50 countries whose mission is to accompany, serve, and defend the rights of refugees and displaced people. Set up by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1980, the Jesuit Refugee Service offers displaced persons practical and spiritual support, according to their humanitarian needs, regardless of their beliefs.