Students Travel to Brazil to Study Technology and the Common Good

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A group of students and two faculty members traveled during spring break to explore the effects of digital technologies on people living in rural communities and less affluent areas of Brazil.

Assistant Professor of Digital and Computational Studies Fernando Nascimento and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Cibele Freire, who are both from Brazil, organized and led the trip. They were hosted by UNISAL, the Centro Universitário Salesiano de São Paulo in Lorena, a small city in the state of São Paulo.

Nascimento began planning the trip after his friend, a dean at UNISAL, called him two years ago to tell him about a grant-funded project he was involved in to bring internet access to remote villages. 

Just about eighteen months after their conversation, the Bowdoin group had the chance to visit one of these communities—São Miguel—to see what has changed. 

“This is something we talk a lot about in digital and computational studies (DCS) classes, the impact of new technologies in people’s lives,” Nascimento said. “We had a special circumstance here—a community in 2022 that did not have broadband access and now, all of a sudden, they do. And that is where the idea began.”

The Bowdoin group at UNISAL in Lorena, where they stayed for a week.

The Bowdoin group at UNISAL, their host for the week.

In the end, he and Freire broadened the scope of the expedition to look at several dimensions of technology and the common good. Their final itinerary also included visits to an organic farming co-op to learn how technology could boost productivity, and to an organization that is teaching technology skills to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Bowdoin students majoring in DCS or computer science were invited to apply for one of the eight spots on the trip. Up to seventy percent of the students’ travel costs was covered by Bowdoin.*

“In DCS, we talk a lot about the digital divide—the difference between who can and cannot use technology,” Nascimento said. “In Brazil, we were able to see this firsthand.”

How the Internet Changed São Miguel

São Miguel, a village of 400 people, is reachable via a ninety-minute drive along rough dirt roads from the nearest city. When it rains, the roads are impassable and the community is cut off.

Up until 2023, when UNISAL engineering students established a cell tower close to the town’s center, the villagers did not have any access to the internet. If they wanted to use cell phones, they had to climb a nearby hill to catch a signal.

The small town of São Miguel, with a center consisting of several houses, a small grocery store, school, church, and clinic.

In São Miguel, the small center consists of several houses, a small grocery store, school, church, and clinic.

“What the university did was to solve the technical problem of supplying a cell signal, but solving technical problems can create other issues,” Nascimento said.

When the Bowdoin group visited in March, they sat down with the village leader as well as with young students to discuss the ways the technology had affected the community.

At the small school, Nascimento said he, Freire, and the Bowdoin students were struck by the sight of an empty soccer field. Nearby, small groups of students huddled together over their phones.

“They told us they spend eight to ten hours a day on social media or playing video games,” Nascimento said. “They don’t play soccer, they don’t talk to their parents as they used to, and the parents have no idea what is going on because they don’t know the technology.”

Sao Miguel

Another view of the center of town.

Mason Daugherty ’25, a participant on the trip, said bringing the web to the village so quickly was like “turning the dial from zero to sixty,” profoundly altering “a community that…suddenly had access to the depths of the whole internet.”

A village leader told the Bowdoin students that he thought kids as young as seven may have already been exposed to pornography. “All of these issues we also face in the US,” Daugherty said. “But we have been connected for decades now, and there has been time to ramp up. As technologies have advanced, people’s ability to deal with them and to respond to them have stayed on track. But there, it was disproportionate.”

But the internet has had positive repercussions as well. Teachers can access more educational materials. High school students can prepare for college exams or take online courses. Local business owners can expand their markets. The village leader, who is also a nurse, said that the community has more consistent access to health care.

students in sao miguel talk to Bowdoin students

Young people in the community meet with the Bowdoin group to discuss how the internet has changed their lives. Nascimento and Freire translated.

Anya Workman ’25, another student on the trip, said that a doctor typically visits the village once a week—if it’s not raining. Since the advent of the cell tower, people can now also contact the distant hospital using the instant messaging service WhatsApp whenever they need to. She noted that the potential impact of this is greater than people just receiving more consistent care.

“When we asked the kids what would make you want to stay in the community, one answer was having a hospital,” she said. “Having access to health care is a big component of keeping the next generation in the community.”

Workman added, however, that the technology could be being doing even more. The clinic could incorporate bigger screens or remote medical sensors to measure vital signs, passing on data to a physician or nurse. Nascimento also mentioned the possibility of attaching a sensor to local wells that could test for contamination and send alerts if bacteria is detected.

“The bottom line is that the common good has to drive the technology. The technology doesn’t create the common good,” Nascimento said. “If you just drop in the technology, it can be bungled and has uncertain outcomes.”

“I hope this experience made students think about the common good in a broader way. Not only as a conceptualized notion that we aspire to achieve through targeted actions, but also as something we practice daily in small gestures.”

—Cibele Freire, CS professor

Smallholder Farms and the Internet of Things

After their trip to São Miguel, the group drove out to a farm in Canas, another small municipality of São Paulo, to speak with the founder of the oldest organic cooperative in the region. 

This visit was of particular interest to Ben Israel ’25, who left his study-abroad program in Ireland to be part of the group in Brazil. Last summer, he designed a small but sophisticated sensor that monitors conditions like humidity, sunlight, temperature, and soil moisture and automatically turns on and off a water pump when crops are dry.

Students visited an organic farm in Canas.

Students visit an organic farm in Canas.

Israel said that the week in São Paulo state reinforced the importance of designing technology in partnership with the people it is meant to benefit. 

After speaking with farmers, he said he believes “that understandable and inexpensive systems are going to work the best, as well as the ones that fit into their context and aids the issues they’ve identified themselves.” Farmers mentioned to students that they need more reliable irrigation systems and natural ways to avoid pest infestations.

The founder of the coop, who prefers to walk barefoot through the farm.

The founder of the co-op, who prefers to walk barefoot through the farm.

Additionally, Israel said it’s not enough to introduce technology and then walk away. “The importance of education along with implementation was the biggest takeaway for me on the trip, and something we returned to over and over in our discussions—how education, and continuing education as technologies evolve, is essential for any technological implementation in a place like this.”

This type of commitment can help ensure longevity. “When I asked a farmer if he wanted his kids to continue this work, he strongly felt that he did want to pass down the business to his children,” Israel said. “So it’s important to empower the next generation to be skateholders in this technology, too, to be operating it and to take ownership of it.”

Nascimento agreed. “The goal of technology has to be defined by the effort to create human capabilities rather than just to solve technical problems,” he said.

“We hope that the Bowdoin students will be multipliers of this message, and think about how far they want to go with the ‘common’ in the common good. ”

—Fernando Nascimento, DCS professor

Bowdoin students pose with teenagers in a coding class.

Bowdoin students pose with teenagers in a coding class.

Bridging the Digital Divide

The final chapter of the trip brought the Bowdoin group to a center in Lorena  that is teaching technology skills to kids and teenagers from low-income families. Bowdoin students sat in on a coding class, where the Brazilian students “were super excited to show their projects to us,” Nascimento said.

He and Freire designed this part of the excursion to demonstrate the ways that technology can reinforce inequalities rather than lift the majority up—which is often its purported purpose. In particular, he pointed to a disconnect that he and the students observed at the center.

While students in the tech classes were learning high-level skills, including robotics, some of the students’ parents did not even know how to use a word processor, which prevented them from writing a resume, let alone applying for an online job. 

“Instead of technologies becoming an empowerment mechanism, they can become another layer of division on top of financial, economic, and social divisions,” Nascimento said. “This is another area where a DCS perspective could help.”

After concluding the week in Brazil, computer science and psychology major Kavya Doraswamy ’24 said her outlook on technology had shifted.

“I’m viewing technology differently, from a common good perspective,” she said. “Wherever I go next, I’ll embrace that mindset more and think more holistically about technology, and have more in-depth conversations about it.”

*Through the generosity of the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Fund, Bowdoin was able to provide financial assistance to all student participants at all aid levels. Student Affairs contributed to immunizations. 

Nascimento and Freire are grateful for the support they received from Christine Wintersteen, director of international programs and off-campus study, and to the Office of the Dean for Academic Affairs.

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