Carnegie Mellon University
May 04, 2020

Carnegie Mellon Tackles the Digital Divide, Connects High-Need Students to Wi-Fi

CS Pathways Partners With Meta Mesh Wireless Communities To Aid Remote Learning

By Virginia Alvino Young

Virginia Alvino Young
  • School of Computer Science

When Kristopher Hupp started teaching high school social studies in the Cornell School District in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, his classroom had a chalkboard and a PC with a floppy disc drive.

Twenty years later, he's the district's director of technology and instructional innovation, responsible for leading the transition to remote learning in response to the spread of COVID-19. While all of Cornell's classrooms have fast and reliable internet, not every student has a device like a Chromebook, and many lack reliable internet access at home.

"My stress level was through the roof," Hupp said. "Lots of waking up in the middle of the night, trying to stay on top of all of the email and phone communication with families and trying to find devices, and making sure they got wirelessly connected."

And the Cornell School District isn't alone. According to Pittsburgh Public Schools, 46% of homes in its district don't have access to reliable Wi-Fi. A 2018 survey found that as many as 60% of some Pittsburgh neighborhoods have no internet access, and many other urban, suburban and rural homes lack connectivity.

"Many of the most underresourced learners can't get online," said Ashley Williams Patton, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Computer Science Pathways program.

To support the transition to remote learning, CMU CS Pathways is partnering with Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Meta Mesh Wireless Communities to provide free access to Wi-Fi in high-need communities across the Greater Pittsburgh Area, starting with a pilot program in Coraopolis.

Maggie Hannan, associate director of CMU's Simon Initiative, co-leads the effort with Patton.

"Now is a critical time to invest in communities that have long been underserved, provide immediate relief, and build long-term partnerships with educators and leaders as they negotiate this massive disruption," Hannan said.

"COVID-19 did not create the digital divide, but it is highlighting existing inequities in the education system. We're trying to come up with solutions that aren't band-aids. Because what happens after that? We're attempting to create a solution that doesn't go away," Patton added.

The plan is to go neighborhood by neighborhood where there is a high concentration of need and provide a wireless network. Areas including Homewood and New Kensington are slated to follow the Coraopolis pilot.

"It's Meta Mesh's technology. We're using our contacts and resources to amplify the work they're doing and provide the resources they need to do it," Patton said.

Adam Longwill is the founder and executive director of Meta Mesh Wireless Communities. His organization has spent the past seven years providing nearly 10 million square feet of wireless connectivity to high-need areas in the region. One way to do that is by creating mesh networks using relay devices and donated broadband from the community.

"The public network is safely segmented, bypassing the host network. Donors likely don't even notice a change in bandwidth," Longwill said.

Meta Mesh can also install towers to strategically direct donated broadband from KINBER, a statewide nonprofit ISP. "It requires having a clear line of sight. Imagine bouncing a bunch of lasers with mirrors into targeted parts of the community," Longwill noted.

Patton said her team is in crisis-management mode and working to get communities connected "as fast as we can, any way we can." To create a long-lasting solution, the Coraopolis relay network can eventually be reconfigured using existing devices to provide permanent free Wi-Fi in public spaces.

Longwill said that with all classes moving online, many students have been left in the dust. His organization is looking for a variety of volunteers, including installers, to help scale up and meet the need for connectivity.

"We have what we need to monitor and upgrade equipment and respond to outages," he said. "Our system can deploy tens of thousands of access points, routers and switches on the same platform."

Meta Mesh's Outreach Coordinator Becky Zajdel said the scale of the problem is hard to imagine. "Now people are forced to realize that the digital divide is real and a salient issue, and forced to admit that internet access is a human right," she said.

Initial support for the project was provided by the Hopper Dean Foundation, which originally granted the funding to CMU CS Pathways to support initiatives that had to be canceled due to COVID-19, including the AI4All summer camp, and other programs dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion. Hopper Dean has generously allowed the money to be appropriated for this emergency-response project.

CMU CS Pathways has been hard at work addressing many needs in schools, such as a lack of devices, in-class teaching assistance, and mental wellness for teachers and students. The team is also part of a larger CMU initiative, Sustaining Equity in Education Network (SEEN), which comprises members from the Simon Initiative, CREATE Lab, the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) and the School of Computer Science (SCS). The collaboration aims to help educators working through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who wish to support SEEN's work can give to the SCS Outreach Fund, which supports the college's efforts to inspire and empower kids to study computer science, regardless of their school district or background. In light of COVID-19, the current emphasis is on helping schools make an equitable transition to remote learning.

"We haven't shifted our focus at all, we've just adapted for the current environment," Patton said. "Our mission is always to provide resources and a pathway for students to make informed decisions about their own futures. We've just changed our delivery model. We're prioritizing the same relationships and neighborhoods. We can be this reflexive because we've spent years supporting students who are often left out of these conversations."

The Cornell School District has already begun remote learning. Hupp said they've been handing out work packets and trying to develop other creative solutions until the wireless network is up and running — a day he said he can hardly wait for.

"I feel like it means these students have a chance to continue to learn, continue to move forward," Hupp said. "But then also looking long term after this crisis is over, it allows them a little more equity."