Search form

Kids Build Computers -- and a Future

Discover 'What's in the Box?' Programs that teach students how to build, repair, and maintain computers have become more commonplace as school officials discover the growing need for workers with hands-on technical skills. Learn about some of those programs in this Education World story. Included: Four programs that work!

Until this semester, all high school senior Jonathan Hagar saw when he looked at a computer was a machine for playing games and typing reports. He rarely though about what was inside the cream-colored box. "Oh, boy. I don't know anything," Hagar remembers thinking the first time he opened a computer's hard drive. By the time he finished fixing his first computer, however, Hagar knew a great deal. Hagar and a few other students at the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center (SRVRTC) in Claremont, New Hampshire, took a course called What's in the Box? They found out what makes computers tick -- or, in most cases, not tick.

SRVRTC director Jill Edson wrote a $15,000 grant to fund the course. Students learn to repair computers and, in the process, have the opportunity to become qualified as associates of the Cisco Networking Academy. According to instructor Gary McKenney, the program also saves the school district money. Students make repairs that would otherwise be contracted out. McKenney conservatively estimates that by repairing 60 computers donated by a local company, his students saved the district almost $10,000. McKenney, who rarely lectures to the class, says that most of what the students learn is by trial and error. If there are problems he can't help them figure out, there's always a manual lying around to refer to, McKenney said. The problems the students deal with can involve anything from hardware to software to cabling for individual computers. "We even have some kids building computers from scratch," McKenney added.


These days, the SRVRTC program is hardly unique. Similar programs have become more commonplace as school officials across the country discover the incredible workplace need for workers who can repair computers. In a recent New York Times article, Schools Train Students To Staff Computer Help Desks, Gerald C. Westfall, creator of a respected student computer training project, estimated that 25 percent of school districts in the United States have a formal computer training program -- compared to about 2 percent just four years ago. At

Marcus Whitman High School in Rushville, New York, technology coordinator Paul Fletcher has watched that school's technology club flourish during its brief three-year existence. The formation of the club just seemed to be well-timed, Fletcher said. The school district was about to acquire 170 computers through a district-wide technology plan. A group of students expressed an interest in learning how to build and repair computers. The two endeavors simply merged. "It struck me that it would be a lot easier if we built the systems ourselves," Fletcher said. Therefore, instead of purchasing more-expensive already-built systems, the school district saved about $23,000 by having technology club members put together the computers from scratch. Fletcher, who until a few years ago worked in multimedia in the private sector, said workers with technology skills are badly needed in the workforce. "There is a need for people with more hands-on skills," he said.


Marcus Whitman High School senior Josh Stevens wasn't sure what he wanted to do after graduation in June. After hearing of the demand for computer technicians, he believes he might have found his niche. Stevens remembers the first technology club meeting he attended. A group of nine students spent five hours rebuilding a computer. "I had never even taken one apart before," Stevens said. Club members now perform the same task in about a half hour. Computers donated to the district and repaired by members of the technology club are refurbished and returned to the community -- preferably to low income families," Fletcher said. "It is not a formally structured program. It is more of an experience-type thing," he added. Because entrepreneurship is another important aspect of the Marcus Whitman program, students are encouraged to discuss problems directly with hardware or software suppliers. The students are even giving pointers to their teachers. Stevens readily acknowledged that teachers are often not the most computer-literate people in the world. The most common question is why someone's e-mail doesn't work, Stevens noted. The answer: "They are trying to retrieve it from the wrong box."


In Massachusetts, the Malden School district, with the help of the Massachusetts Department of Education, became a pioneer in technology with the 1998 adoption of the non-profit program Youth Tech Entrepreneurs (YTE). This program prepares high school students for the future by helping them develop computer businesses that benefit under-served communities today. Students begin the YTE program in their sophomore year, making a commitment to participate in the entire three-year program. During that time, they attend classes and Saturday labs and participate in after-school technology-based projects. According to the Web site, the Malden students, who learn how to assemble and maintain computers, have already saved the school thousands of dollars by refurbishing donated computers. The program has been so successful that it has spread to five other schools in eastern Massachusetts. State education officials believe that, within the next five years, more than 2,000 Massachusetts students in 25 schools will participate in the program.


In yet another program, a nationwide alliance has been formed under the acronym StRUT, or Students Recycling Used Technology. Through the program, founded in 1995 by Intel Corporation and the Northwest Regional Education Service District, students refurbish donated computers for use in the schools. There are currently 21 StRUT sites in Oregon, with additional sites in Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas. One of StRUT's goals is to work with businesses to reduce the barriers preventing schools from accessing the Internet. The result: more than 10,000 computers set up in classrooms and technology skills and experience for nearly 1,000 students.


Back in Claremont, the handful of students enrolled in What's in the Box? wake from their slumber earlier than most students. The class begins at 7:30 a.m.-five days a week. Jonathan Hagar, who admits he was not computer literate before taking the semester-long course, says the class is "fun." He also believes it will help him meet his goals after graduation. In fact, Hagar, who can now format hard drives, change directories, load programs, upgrade motherboards, and eliminate viruses, already has a lot of relatives asking him to troubleshoot their computers. Recently, three of the SRVRTC students went to Concord, New Hampshire's state capital, to help upgrade computers at a U.S. Department of Agriculture office. Because of the students' assistance, the USDA donated 11 computers to the school district, according to McKenney. "I am not surprised at how well the class is going," SRVRTC director Edson told Education World. "There is a huge future in the workforce for people with these skills."


  • Computers 4 Kids Nonprofit educational initiative supplying computers to schools and organizations; donate, volunteer, or apply for a grant.
  • PBS Kids: Techknow A cool cyberliteracy site for kids. Pass an interactive quiz and receive an official PBS Kids Web license, and learn how to judge Web sites.

Article by Ryan Francis
Education World
Copyright 2000 Education World


Please check out our other articles this week: