Dax Penney ’21 envisions low-cost computers for the resettled refugee community
Junior Dax Penney’s interest in computers, programming, and robotics was sparked by his experiences as a sixth-grader attending Waynflete summer camp. It was here where he first encountered open-source components and microcontrollers like the Raspberry Pi.
In the world of computing, the Pi is a blank slate. The compact, low-cost device can load any number of operating systems from a standard SD card, which also serves as the computer’s internal memory. It was developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a United Kingdom-based charity. According to its website, the foundation seeks to help more people harness the power of computing and digital technologies for project work, to solve problems that matter to them, and to express themselves creatively. “The Pi is a malleable platform,” says Dax. “I realized that it had a lot of potential.”
At the time, Dax was also involved with a Catholic Charities initiative called The Backpack Project, which raised funds to purchase school supplies for recently resettled refugees in Portland. He recalls attending an event where a father from Anbar Province, Iraq, described the impact of the Catholic Charities initiative on his family. “His comments really spoke to me,” Dax recalls. In his freshman year at Waynflete, Dax’s mother suggested that he consider how he might use his computer skills to help others.
Access to a home computer and an internet connection have become essential parts of the learning process. Students need digital tools like Schoology and the Google Suite to conduct research, work on projects, and collaborate with teachers and students. Dax made a connection between these needs and the Pi. Would it be possible to fabricate computers for less than $150 and distribute these devices to resettled refugee families?
Catholic Charities staff loved the idea and suggested that he focus on a portable laptop solution. While Dax was ready to move forward, he needed funding to develop a prototype and assemble an initial run of computers. A large group of African refugee families—temporarily housed at the Portland Expo—had recently arrived in Portland, however. Catholic Charities had no budget to spare.
Undaunted, Dax launched “Peace of Pi,” a campaign on the community fundraising platform GoFundMe. The campaign’s early success has enabled him to begin developing a prototype. The physical characteristics of the computer have been his primary focus. “The case needs to work, the right parts need to fit in the sections,” he says. “I’m trying to make a compact product, but one that functions really well.” (Learn more about Dax’s “Peace of Pi” campaign.)
Dax hopes to study robotics and computer engineering in college through the ROTC program, with plans to pursue an Army commission after he completes his studies. “Service to community, state, and nation is definitely something that interests me,” he says. “I feel lucky to live in a country built on the kind of principles that John Winthrop envisioned with his idea of the ‘city upon the hill.’ We need to think about whether that’s a beacon for all of us, or something that’s only accessible to some of us.”
Update from Dax, April 7, 2020
“Today I was able to give the first Peace of Pi laptop to a refugee from Angola who arrived in the US just a few weeks ago. This allows him to continue to learn English, keep up with his guitar lessons through video conferencing, and most importantly talk to his kids again. I still have a ways to go with fundraising, so if you are interested in donating or just learning more about Peace of Pi, click here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/