School program makes use of new skills, old computers


A school's computer refurbishing program combines academic learning and hands-on lab work with community service.

When a large company or famous philanthropist donates computers to children to advance their learning and give them online access to the world, it makes an impact. But when the donors are young teenagers who revamped and renovated the computers themselves, it makes an even bigger impact.

Students and teachers at Forest Park High School, a public magnet school in Woodbridge, Va., say their school’s computer donation program has become an essential part of the learning experience. It has also become an essential asset for the community.

The program combines academic learning and hands-on lab work with community service. First students learn about computer systems and networks. Then they rebuild used computers and give them away to children and other schools needing computers.

It is the act of giving that solidifies the learning experience, says Brian Hackett, an instructional technologist at the school and co-coordinator for the program. “It becomes personal. You don’t get personal in learning until the kids see results of what they have learned.”

Hackett thinks education in general should head in the direction of combining schooling with community service. Applying academic material gives it relevance.

The students seemed to agree. “When we go to events to give the computers away, the parents and students are overwhelmed with joy. The smiles on their faces are amazing,” said Karl Stallknecht, a student at Forest Park. “You can see the big picture.”

As the students worked on restoring computers to mint condition during class, they spoke about their coursework with enthusiasm. They seemed to grasp the complexities of information technology as they discussed network systems, web hosting, cloud-based solutions, Linux operating systems, and various software programs. Listening to their high level of discourse, it was clear they understood as least as much about technology as the average adult working in the field.

What is especially significant is that the students involved in the refurbishment-and-donation program sounded genuinely interested in using their knowledge to help others. The program is, after all, about giving.

A model program

The program started during the 2000-2001 school year when Chuck Drake, the school’s new IT coordinator, introduced the concept of computer refurbishment to students enrolled in networking classes. Teachers formalized the program, making it part of the curriculum, and their students excelled.

The school’s proximity to Washington, D.C. made it easy to find free computers. Many federal agencies were glad to unload their old computers someplace that could use them. By the 2011-2012 school year, Forest Park was receiving laptops by the truckload. Now teachers say the most challenging aspect is finding space to store the donations. The rewards for the community are endless.

“We’ve been able to save a whole lot of dollars for schools and families,” Drake said. They have also delivered internet access to people who lacked it.

All the computers are wiped clean and rebuilt from scratch. If the hard drive is missing, a new one is installed. Thanks to corporate-giving programs from Microsoft and Comcast and to open-source software programs that are free to download and use, the school can equip each computer with the following:

  • Microsoft XP operating system
  • LibreOffice, a free suite of office tools for writing, drawing diagrams, and making calculations
  • GIMP, a free graphics program
  • An antivirus program
  • Internet Essentials, a low-cost internet-service provider sponsored by Comcast

With support from the state, Forest Park High School administrators helped launch the program in 10 other schools. They say while Forest Park has advantages, such as high-quality IT coursework, the refurbishment program can be replicated in classrooms and in extracurricular programs in schools around the country.

Forest Park students, meanwhile, are already thinking of ways to make that happen more easily. “We need to come up with a training brochure,” said Stallknecht. “It is not that complicated. It is more about training someone to teach it.” He suggested that as long as a school can hire someone who knows about computers and knows how to teach, it could run the program. Used computers are easy to find.

With this in mind, the possibilities for teaching technology and bridging the digital divide seem increasingly infinite.

Patti Mohr is a journalist working on a book about open-source technology in schools. She can be contacted through her home page at www.patriciamohr.com or by eMail at mohrwriting@gmail.com.

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