Center for Civic Innovation interns help extend Wi-Fi to Elkhart Community Schools students

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Center for Civic Innovation

Center for Civic Innovation

Interns with the Center for Civic Innovation (CCI) at the University of Notre Dame spent the summer surveying households in the city of Elkhart about internet access on behalf of Elkhart Community Schools, drawing the attention of a local provider of mobile Wi-Fi solutions for the bus industry.

MITO Corp., based in Elkhart, is now working with Elkhart Community Schools to outfit at least 25 buses with WiFiRanger, a suite of mobile Wi-Fi and network solutions that will allow the corporation to deploy buses as Wi-Fi hotspots — a valuable tool in the age of online learning.

The project, coordinated with assistance from the interns, will provide reliable, high-speed Wi-Fi to the estimated 7 percent of public school students in Elkhart without ready access to wired or wireless internet, allowing them to learn and study remotely, connect with teachers and classmates and access information outside of the classroom.

The interns also developed a qualification plan, including an application, eligibility guidelines and a preliminary FAQ, for free or low-cost Wi-Fi in South Central Elkhart, a historically underserved area of the city, and helped secure a $150,000 grant from the state Department of Education for 500 iPads for students without access to such technology.

The grant was courtesy of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, a provision of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that seeks to improve the availability of remote learning techniques and technologies.

In both cases, the interns relied on data from thousands of responses to paper and electronic surveys about internet access sent to households across the city of Elkhart.

“The goal of the surveys was to get an understanding of the overall need for Wi-Fi access,” said José Chiquito Galván, manager of the Elkhart internship program for CCI. “Anecdotally, we knew there was a need (for affordable Wi-Fi), and even more so now with the pandemic. But we didn’t know exactly where it was concentrated.”

Four interns — Keturah Brooks; Kalley Slater; Jaylen Holmes, representing the former Elkhart Memorial High School, now Elkhart High School; and Irving Suarez, a senior psychology and biology double major at Goshen College — worked on the project.

“The primary goal was to provide reliable internet to students in South Central Elkhart,” said Suarez, who was born in Elkhart and grew up in Goshen.

He said the experience affirmed his desire to teach, pursue research and help others.

Jason Inman is director of technology services for Elkhart Community Schools, which exposes students to a variety of technologies in preparation for college and beyond.

“They did great work,” Inman said of the interns. “They really impressed us. They were far better than we could have imagined for high school and college students.”

MITO, a mobile technology provider for the automotive, RV, marine and bus industries, became involved late in the process. The company had been working with school corporations and bus manufacturers, including Blue Bird and Thomas Built, to convert buses to Wi-Fi hotspots since the start of the pandemic. So when Andrew Tate, a marketing representative with the company, heard about the survey and the need for reliable Wi-Fi in the city, he immediately reached out to help.

“We had been concentrating on marketing our WiFiRanger C-19 product line to school districts nationally, so when MITO owner Mike Stock and President Dan Maloney learned that Notre Dame and Elkhart Community Schools were working together to help the local community, we jumped at the chance to come alongside them,” Tate said.

He added, “Not only does it give us great satisfaction to help in our community, but by showing the country that north central Indiana entities can come together to solve major problems, we can build on the economic development initiatives of the area as a whole.”

The Wi-Fi hotspots will have an omnidirectional range of about 2,000 feet. Verizon will provide the internet service for the hotspots under a program that offers discounts to school corporations. MITO is offering its own discount on the hardware. Additionally, the system’s indoor routers will provide value long after the pandemic with in-transit Wi-Fi for students traveling to and from events and in daily transit.

Wi-Fi access has been a priority for Elkhart Community Schools for some time but is especially critical now with the shift to online learning in the wake of the coronavirus. The corporation is currently offering both online and in-person instruction at each of its 19 schools.

Nationwide, 14 percent of children ages 3 to 18, or about 9.4 million kids, lack access to home internet, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This digital divide disproportionately affects students from underserved communities, including underrepresented minority students.

The Wi-Fi project is one of four Elkhart-based projects associated with CCI’s 2020 summer internship program, which engaged dozens of interns, both college and high school students, in community-based projects across South Bend and Elkhart from mid-June to August. The interns worked remotely because of the coronavirus.

In addition to helping Elkhart Community Schools extend Wi-Fi to district households, the Elkhart interns developed a rain garden for the Tolson Center, helped increase efficiency in the production of modular homes, developed a bilingual website to educate residents on proper recycling and waste disposal, developed bilingual signage about the history of the former Elkhart River dam and compiled food pantry locations in Elkhart County via Google maps.

Part of the College of Engineering, CCI seeks innovative solutions to pressing civic needs, primarily in the South Bend-Elkhart area. Notably, the center manages an internship program for high school and college students based on a community-engaged educational ecosystem model composed of educational institutions, local government and community organizations.

The Community Foundation of Elkhart County finances the internship program in Elkhart. This marked the first year interns worked full-time in Elkhart after piloting the program with part-time interns the previous two years.

For more information, visit civicinnovation.nd.edu.

Contact: Erin Blasko, assistant director of media relations, 574-631-4127, eblasko@nd.edu