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Two Birds, One Stone: Students Tackle the Digital Divide and E-Waste Crisis in New York Cit

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Aaron Tang

Author • March 26, 2023

Sister T King Bey, a homeschooled student from New York City, is passionate about drawing and animating, but her creative endeavors are limited by her lack of access to a personal computer. “I don’t do assignments online for the fact that I don’t really have a computer at the moment,” she says.

Despite being homeschooled, Sister T’s situation is an apt illustration of the challenges faced by many students who lack access to technology. Even outside the traditional classroom environment, her academic progress is hindered by the digital divide, as it impacts her ability to complete assignments, develop essential digital skills, and fully explore her creative potential.

Without a personal computer, Sister T’s options for learning and academic growth are restricted. She largely relies on libraries and other public resources for computer access, which are often subject to time constraints and limited availability– “45 minutes to an hour, depending on your age,” she tells us. And she misses out on the wealth of resources and educational tools available online, which, employed correctly through understanding digital literacy and technology, can significantly enhance her learning experience.

Moreover, her passion for drawing and animating is held back by her inability to utilize specific software and tools that would allow her to refine her craft and work more efficiently. The limitations she faces due to the lack of technology access not only impact her academic progress but also stifle her ability to pursue her creative aspirations.

Regardless of the educational setting, access to technology is crucial for students to fully develop their potential and navigate the increasingly digital world. Similarly, 17-year-old high school senior Jacob Hwang uses his phone or school iPad to complete assignments, as his school doesn’t allow him to take a computer home.

For Jacob, access to free or low-cost technology can alleviate financial stressors for him and his family. With college tuition and expenses looming, Jacob is saving money to prepare for his higher education. “I have a job, and I’ve been saving up for college. If I get a computer it will significantly help me focus toward saving for my college,” Jacob says.

However, the lack of a personal computer hinders his academic progress and forces him to rely on borrowed devices, which are not always readily available or suitable for his needs. Thus, EcoAccess soon recognized Jacob’s predicament through his reaching out and stepped in to provide him with a donated computer. This simple act has since eased his financial burden by eliminating the need to invest in a costly device. With access to his own computer, Jacob can now fully dedicate his savings to college expenses, reducing the strain on his family’s finances and improving his prospects for success in higher education. Moreover, the donated computer has enabled Jacob to excel academically and pursue tech-related internships and coursework, such as AP Literature, which would have been difficult or impossible without a personal computer.

These students embody the digital divide in education, where the gap between those with access to technology and those without continues to impact academic performance and family income.

In New York City, the digital divide disproportionately affects low-income communities. According to a 2020 report by the Office of the New York City Comptroller, approximately 29% of households in the city lack broadband internet access, and 18% of households have no internet access at all (1). This lack of access, perpetuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has hindered hundreds of thousands of students’ abilities to complete assignments, study, and develop essential digital skills.

Sister T’s experiences highlight the challenges faced by students who lack access to technology. “When it comes to academics, it’ll be easier to study on the computer, having access to a bigger platform… I don’t do assignments online for the fact that I don’t really have a computer at the moment, so when we go to the library, we normally print out our assignments.”

In response, in 2021, students from the Bronx High School of Science teamed up with students from around the city to create EcoAccess, an autonomous student-run nonprofit branch of We Care Act Houston, and dedicated two years to alleviating the pressures of a post-pandemic device crisis. Their approach to refurbishing used computers and donating them to students in need effectively tackles two pressing issues simultaneously: the digital divide and the growing e-waste crisis. By repurposing and extending the life of electronic devices, they are essentially “killing two birds with one stone.”

While electronic waste continues to grow at an alarming rate, with New York State generating over 310,000 tons of e-waste in 2018 alone (2), it not only consumes valuable landfill space but also poses environmental and health risks due to the release of hazardous materials. By refurbishing and repurposing used computers, they reduce the volume of e-waste and promote a more sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to technology consumption.

The students’ approach is intentional and small-scale, focusing on one-to-one human connections to make a difference. EcoAccess aims to empower thousands of more students like Sister T and Jacob by providing them with access to technology and provide them with the necessary resources to help them level the academic playing field.

The students recognize that internet access alone is not sufficient to empower digital citizens. And through their actions, they also focus on addressing the barriers to digital life that individuals face, such as unfamiliarity with technology and limited access to resources. By providing students with both the tools and the knowledge they need, they help close these interconnected issues that require comprehensive solutions. However, their efforts are far from done, and by bridging the digital divide, EcoAccess continues to empower students to succeed academically while fighting for a brighter future for our planet.

Sources:

(1) Office of the New York City Comptroller. (2020). Bridging the Digital Divide in New York City. Retrieved from https://comptroller.nyc.gov/reports/bridging-the-digital-divide-in-new-york-city/

(2) New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. (2018). Electronic Waste Recycling. Retrieved from https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/66872.html

Read the full article on Medium.