Exploring Computer Guts

Exploring Computer Guts

A national technology program is just the start of a high-tech wave coming to New York City

Upon entering a second-floor classroom at Ronald Edmonds Learning Center, a junior high school in Brooklyn late last spring, the silence peppered with intermittent hushed voices spoke volumes about the program going on. About 15 students were leaning over exposed computers, looking into their guts, pulling out pieces, and carefully replacing them in their respective spots.

Natasha Lopez, an eighth grader, points to parts of the gutted computer--plastic sheets covered with shiny raised structures. "This is RAM, which stores memory for the computer," she explains about one piece. "Right now, we're putting a hard drive back together."

At another table, Damaris Edwards, a sixth grader, explains with confidence that a "bay" is where a hard or floppy disk drive, CD-ROM drive, or tape drive can be installed. He patiently repeats the explanation to a reporter, not quite understanding a "bay."

The Dell TechKnow program, which was initially established in 1998 by Denver Public Schools, to lessen the student dropout rate and provide students with home access to technology, was launched nationwide two years ago. It has served 12 other districts throughout the country, recently adding New York City. About 350 low-income sixth through eighth graders in 24 New York City schools explored the innards of computers and learned the roles of the tiny pieces. About 80 percent of the students are minorities and typically have no computer at home.

Upon completion of the 40-hour, after-school program, each student receives a free refurbished Dell desktop computer, software and one year of free Internet access. The city Department of Education and Dell are working to enroll more than 1,000 students in the program this school year, making NYC the largest participant so far.

Problem-Solving and Trouble-Shooting

Some children are part of the school's technology program curriculum and already have some knowledge about computers. For two hours, two days a week over 10 weeks, students learn the computer's components and how to install software.

A group of students at the front of the classroom at the Brooklyn school includes Natasha, eighth-grader Aaron Thomas, and seventh-grader Elijah Ferebee. Elijah writes in his journal what he learned for the day, something all students are required to do. "We have a booklet that helps us learn," Elijah explains. "The teacher tells us what to do and shows us the parts. Being able to see inside of a computer and taking it apart ... is fun."

They also learn to problem solve and trouble shoot. They are taught, for example, how to get a floppy disk out of the drive with the power off.

Upon that, NYC Chancellor of Schools Joel I. Klein and Dell Founder and Chairman Michael Dell walk into the classroom and approach the first table. After observing for a few moments, Klein says in a low voice and with a grin, "I think they're going to improve this product."

"I'm so proud of the students, seeing the excitement on their faces and the enthusiasm for learning." The program helps students learn more about technology, he says, using an old saying, "Give a man a fish, you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish, you have fed him for a lifetime."

Dell visited the school to bolster the idea that much needs to be done to improve technology skills. The program makes students aware of "not only what is outside of the box, but also what is inside of the box," says Dell, who was in seventh grade when he first tapped on a computer keyboard.

Tech-Savvy Teachers

After the event, Chancellor Klein said public education needs to enhance technology learning and NYC is no exception. "We need to do more professional development and have teachers learn how to be more tech-savvy," Klein said. "We need to create an environment for them."

Half of the $13.1 billion is expected to come from New York City capital funds and the other half is expected to come from state funds, but the state had made no funding commitment to the city as of June.

The proposed plan involves Project Connect, which includes installing technology infrastructure in school buildings, such as cabling classrooms, adding communication systems and enhancing the department's network infrastructure. It will support distance learning to provide specialized curricula to students who would not otherwise have access to such information.

The student information systems in place are more than 15 years old and need an update, especially considering the requirements spelled out in NCLB. The update will increase efficiency in reporting, data integrity and maintenance.

Educators can then access information about students, allowing them to target specific student achievement goals. And students will have rich digital resources at their fingertips so they can explore subjects in depth and learn at their own pace.

Over the last few years, the city education department has improved sound technology infrastructure to schools, with the aim to provide Internet access in every classroom. More than 950 of 1,200 schools have all classrooms cabled for Internet access and more than 500 schools have wireless technology in classrooms.

The plan also pushes for greater security, such as using state-of-the-art technology, including computerized access control systems, Internet-protocol network-based video surveillance systems, and upgrading metal detectors with more sensitive body scanners. The updated surveillance should reduce crime and disorder in schools with the highest police incident rates.

Pressing Forward

After the students finished their computer surgery for the day, they joined their classmates in a special assembly program. In a first of its kind, Dell conducted a TechTalk program, a kind of techie "fireside chat" with students, who asked questions about technology and Dell's life. The TechTalk program continues across the nation, led by Dell or company CEO Kevin Rollins for students as well as teachers and administrators. "The point of the TechTalk really is just to provide an informal setting for the audience to ask questions of someone who is an avid user of technology, possesses [and encourages] 21st century skills, and is committed to education," says Michele Glaze, a spokeswoman for Dell.

The line between the man and the company is blurry. Dell, who says he started the Round Rock, Texas, company with $1,000 as a computer upgrade kit outfit, now has $41.4 billion in revenues. His inspiration was born out of honesty, he told the students. Computers were being sold at a higher price than what they were worth, he explained, realizing he could sell a computer for about $800, not the up to $3,000 that other companies wanted.

When Dell first started, he says he was up against many naysayers who tried to coax him out of his ideas, raining on his parade with comments such as, "This won't work." He ignored them and continued to press forward, believing in his convictions. In the end, his vision became reality.

"If you know how to use these tools now, it will open up possibilities" in the future, Dell told the students, who were fixated on the chairman and taking in his every word. "I would encourage you to soak up the knowledge."

The assembly became a pep rally of sorts, with Klein adding that the students before him must dream "big." "Go for it and keep going for it" even in the face of adversity, Klein encouraged.

"Kids have an enormous capacity to learn," Dell said later. "They learn computers are friendly and it's fun ... We're not teaching them about repairing a computer. It's more importantly about what it does ... so they are a little less scared of it."

Angela Pascopella is features editor.


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