Jorge Osorio: From storage container to state-of- the-art classroom

In honor of the 25th anniversary of ThinkPad, we recently launched a digital magazine with stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Presenting to you one of the 14 innovative stories that featured in the magazine- Jorge Osorio, a 23 year old student who is retrofitting a 20-foot storage container into a mobile classroom in West Africa.

For most class projects, the main concerns are getting a passable grade and making sure everyone holds up their fair share of the work. For 23-year-old Jorge Osorio and his classmates at the University of Houston, their senior thesis evolved far beyond the classroom into a groundbreaking opportunity to bring educational technology to West Africa.

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes life will drop the perfect opportunity into your lap. It came in the form of a guest lecturer, Dr. Richard Jackson, who had spent some time volunteering in Mali. He was looking for a team to work with him on retrofitting a 20-foot storage container into a classroom, while Osorio was looking for a research topic.

“And everything after that is a blur,” laughed Osorio. After listening to Dr. Jackson’s lecture, Osorio and his fellow classmates — Issac Garay, Chris Abad, Stillwell Pan, and Justin Sanchez — drafted what they referred to as a “crazy 12-page proposal” detailing their big ideas for the project. This was no ordinary assignment; they had unique constraints: the classroom needed to stand alone, it couldn’t be repaired or resupplied for years at a time, and on top of everything else, Mali has spotty-to-no-internet.

“Immediately, we decided we were going to use ThinkPads, to eliminate stationary that would break or run out,” said Osorio. “The next question became, ‘Okay, how do we make this work?’”

In terms of build quality, durability, and their power usage goals, ThinkPads were the perfect choice for Osorio’s team to retrofit their classroom container. With no downtime, strong construction, and the ability to easily replace parts, Osorio has ensured that the children of Mali will have access to technology for years to come.

“Very early on in the project we knew
we were going with ThinkPads.
Simply, it’s the best computer to get stuff done.”

What came next was a lightning-fast series of trial and error, creative problem solving, and many, many late nights in the lab. Osorio and his team ventured to a shipping yard container, found a makeshift workspace in an Active Water Solutions warehouse, and began the work of sanding, painting, and fireproofing the classroom.

“Continually, throughout this entire process, we have been amazed by the level of support and kindness from people inspired by our story,” said Osorio. “We were given a free workspace, access to their tools — many people have donated their time and resources to get this project off the ground, and I think it’s because they truly believe in the impact of what we’re doing.”

Don’t let the classroom’s humble architecture fool you — this container is positively tricked out with solar panels, air conditioning, battery banks, outlets, custom-made LED lightning, and thousands of tiny details of love and labor. Perhaps most impressively, the container is mobile, meaning multiple communities and villages throughout Mali can benefit from its resources.

While all of the nitty-gritty details were being solidified — including a nightmarish sequence in which after waiting two months for fireproof paint, the delivery man accidently spilled the entire can onto the ground — Osorio and the team started developing the technological side of the project. Inside the container, 14 ThinkPads are connected to a robust server, which run a myriad of educational games from math and physics to creative writing. What’s more is that all of this is done without internet.

“It’s incredibly important to be able to bring standalone technology to remote places,” said Osorio. “You don’t necessary need the internet to be useful — to connect people with life changing resources.”

As it stands right now, the container is nearly finished. Osorio and his team are in the fun part, that is, working with local ethnographers to make sure the colors are culturally appropriate and that the software is as intuitive as possible (even for people who have never used a computer before).

It’s taken about a year, but Osorio and his team have learned a lot from their 20-foot container. Namely, that they are just getting started. In the future, they plan to design a 40-foot model, which could serve 40-to-60 students at a time. They are already working with the Mali government to place full fledged servers in strategic locations, which would grant them the ability to stream educational content despite an absence of internet.

“Not everyone starts off equally, but everyone should have the same potential for opportunity,” said Osorio. “I don’t look at this as charity. We’re not giving them things for free; we’re giving them tools to better themselves.”

Flip this magazine to read all 14 inspiring stories or click here to download the PDF


Rahil Arora leads Lenovo’s Customer Stories Program.