Students waiting in line for a turn at the computer could become a quaint memory if an innovative program being developed by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) catches on nationwide.

To kick things off, MSDE will be giving 350 refurbished computers to three disadvantaged school districts this spring as part of the new project, dubbed Operation Reboot.

Through Operation Reboot, outdated corporate and federal computers are given new life in schools. It’s an idea whose time has come, said Darla Strouse, director of the office of research and development, in an interview with eSchool News. For many disadvantaged schools, Strouse pointed out, fixed-up 386s and 486s that would otherwise be abandoned are put to good use.

“The reality is there’s pretty good stuff out there,” said Strouse, who’s been leading the effort, a loose collaboration between MSDE, the Department of General Services, and the National Cristina Foundation. “And in many cases the computers can be outfitted even for internet use.”

The project thrives on gifts and donations. Volunteers refurbish systems that have been cast off by area businesses and government agencies. They work in a loaner wing of a local state mental hospital. Computer parts, telephone systems, and other equipment are held in a warehouse space courtesy of Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E) and delivered in a retooled Army truck that was given to the project by the Department of General Services.

Operation Reboot has recycled more than $10 million worth of donated computer equipment to schoolsÐentirely for free.

Until recently Operation Reboot has refurbished and distributed about 1,000 computers to schools “on a shoe string” budget each year, Strouse said. But she thinks the project must grow to accommodate several large recent donations. “[W]e didn’t ask anybody for any money,” said Strouse. “I’m not running to my superintendent and saying, ‘I need ten thousand dollars.’ I would like to boost it up because now we’ve got hundreds of computers coming in.”

Although the Maryland program is farther along than many, an increasing number of computer recycling efforts are under way across the country. Operation Reboot is one of the largest, with financial backing from the state and hefty equipment contributions coming in from nearby federal offices. The Social Security Administration office, for example, is expected to unload a slew of computers over the next three years as it upgrades.

Recycling philosophy

Some argue that schools are better off with no computers than with computers that aren’t state-of-the-art, noted Strouse. According to this perspective, “If it’s not Pentiums or doesn’t connect to the internet, it’s useless.”

Many more schools, she said, are happy to take 486 and even 386 processors. “They’re saying, ‘they don’t have to be the fastest, the very best in the world, but we need this,'” Strouse said. She pointed out that teachers are often more comfortable with a level of use more appropriate to less powerful computers.

“It’s a big issue in recycling. If the theory is, we’re not interested in any of the equipment unless it meets these specificationsÐand, of course, the specifications are for machines that no one’s giving away . . . then the whole recycling effort doesn’t make sense.”

But as one Operation Reboot volunteer points out, most of the equipment he sees come in isn’t broken or even frustratingly slow. It’s just not top-of-the-line. For schools in districts such as impoverished Garrett countyÐwhere for two years the technology budget for the entire county was only $35,000Ðaccess to any computer is significant.

Human nature

The project benefits all participants, Strouse said, emphasizing the power of philanthropy. “[Y]ou know how people can’t stand to give away a cardboard box . . . you say, it’s such a beautiful box, what can I do with it? Well, can you imagine how horrible it is in terms of human nature to [throw] away a computer that you know works? The happiness involved in giving this stuff to schools and to kids is a tremendous value.”

Studies show, Strouse said, that private sector workers are inclined to take better care of computer equipment if they know schools are going to use it later.

For every three machines that are donated, Strouse said, 2.5 can be updated and reused. Operation Reboot also gives refurbished equipment to local community groups with education-related projects.

Not all of its gifts are computers. One substantial gift came in the form of Apple software donated to the local teacher’s unionÐto the tune of about $100,000. A nearly new telephone system valued at $20,000 was snapped up by the Baltimore County public schoolsÐone of the most economically disadvantaged systems in the country.

“Baltimore county grabbed it,” Strouse said. “They were thrilled.”

The National Cristina Foundation was founded to provide computers to children with disabilities. Dr. Yvette Marrin, president and co-founder, said the foundation is concerned with developing community-based solutions.

“We broadened that to include disadvantaged kids and special populations,” said Strouse. “We’ve identified twelve districts in Maryland that are really in need.”

Companies that donate their old equipment can take federal deductions. Past contributors include Honeywell, Martin Marietta, and BG&E.

Maryland Department of Education

http://sailor.lib.md.us/msde/

The National Cristina Foundation

http://www.cristina.org/index2.html

PEP National Directory of Computer Recycling Programs

http://www.microweb.com/pepsite/Recycle/recycle_index.html