UBC Engineering grad works to improve digital literacy in Nepal

Harry Pigot
Harry Pigot

In Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, near the Boudhanath Stupa — an immense dome-shaped shrine visited every day by thousands of Buddhists, Nepali people and tourists — sits a modest boarding school called Shree Mangal Dvip.>

Founded 30 years ago “to preserve the culture, language, and Buddhist way of life of the Himalayas and to give Himalayan children the tools to build a better future,” the school provides free education to more than 300 kids from remote Himalayan villages in northern Nepal. Between four- and 14-day treks away from the nearest road, the children’s villages have no electricity, running water or sanitation — let alone telecommunication, health care or schools.

In 2010, a high school student from Calgary named Harry Pigot visited Shree Mangal Dvip as part of a class trip. Although he expected it to be an eye-opening experience, he didn’t anticipate how much of an impact it would have on him.

“That visit made a huge impression on me,” says Pigot. “The students, who came from such dire circumstances, were really excited to learn and were working hard to make the most of an opportunity to get a good education — all while maintaining a joyful and loving spirit. I found it inspiring and wanted to try to contribute somehow after finishing university.

A 2017 graduate of UBC’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Pigot has been developing medical technology with Igelösa Life Science in Sweden since 2015. This week, however, he headed to Nepal to begin a 10-month volunteer educational project at Shree Mangal Dvip, where he hopes to spark the young students’ interest in programming and electronics.

“I want to share my excitement about these subjects — to show the children how digital literacy can be used to affect the world around us, from self-expression to basic healthcare delivery,” says Pigot. “Understanding technology could empower them to make positive changes to their communities, or encourage them to pursue careers they otherwise may not have considered.”

To this end, Pigot plans to lead age-specific, hands-on lessons and workshops. He will also work to establish connections between the school and the broader “maker” and STEM communities in Kathmandu, taking his students on field trips to makerspaces like the Nepal Communitere and holding events that feature guest speakers and activities from organizations such as the Robotics Association of Nepal.

Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with 25 per cent of its population subsisting on less than 50 cents (USD) per day. Yet Pigot notes that the Nepalese people continue to show great resolve and resourcefulness — even after the earthquakes and aftershocks of 2015 dealt the country a devastating blow, pushing between 700,000 and 982,000 more people into poverty.

“My goal is to set a foundation so that individuals at the school can take ownership of the program and continue to promote digital literacy and early engineering fundamentals for years to come,” says Pigot. “I also hope my work here will inspire other UBC graduates to start or participate in similar initiatives.”

Pigot is writing about his project and experiences in Kathmandu at www.harrypigot.com. For more information about Shree Mangal Dvip, please visit their website at www.himalayanchildren.org.