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Travelyn Russell was not the most computer savvy teacher in the building. Then she found herself in her new classroom, a computer room with some antiquated equipment. The keyboards were pre USB, you probably remember the old mac or pc keyboards with fragile little pins that carried the data and power of the keyboard to the computer.

However, one snag in my cool new classroom was that my keyboards were strangely incompatible with my computers, so they only worked intermittently. When one wouldn’t work, the students would yank the keyboards out of the CPU’s . After screaming in agonized frustration, I would then calmly explain to the students that they bent the pins in the PS/2 connector, rendering the keyboard into a lifeless mass of cheap plastic.

In the process of dealing with equipment that modern kids didn’t understand and had little patience for, she developed a technique for straightening the pins on the keyboards after her young charges bent them up. It does seem that when the equipment in a school is less than perfectly kept, kids will often mess around with it in ways that make it worse, and then there can be a tipping point where they just mess with it because it seems kind of broken.

In my classroom, I have had students work on donated and cast off computers for a few years. I also use electronics and other devices that I get from the town dump to help get components and systems for students to experiment with. Learning from trash is a great way of releasing the tension of “don’t break that, it cost too much money.” Two years ago, I found a big collection of cast-off compujunk stored in my school system. The publicity that resulted from posting a picture or two to the MAKE Flickr pool was very exciting for me and my students and generated an enormous amount of clever ideas for working with the computers. Students have used junker computers to open up and examine keyboards, mice, CPUs and more. I am not thrilled about kids taking monitors apart, though because of the risk of imploding tubes, and the resulting release of all the metal badness inside a CRT monitor. Flat screen monitors are fun, though.

Another source of compujunk was when a parent approached me with an offer I couldn’t refuse. The last of the computers is just about out the door now. We learned a lot from them and still have some useful parts kicking around.

Certainly Ms. Russell can’t be the only teacher thrust into a classroom with partially working computer equipment. What are your tales from the tech-trenches of your local school system? How did you keep the balls in the mice? What have you made to help kids learn in the classroom? What have you been able to repurpose from the recycling bin, thrift store, or town dump to help your students gain valuable knowledge, experience and satisfaction of creating something from nothing? Where can teachers and students get their hands on legitimately free equipment and software for learning? Add your ideas in the comments, and contribute your photos and video to the MAKE Flickr pool.

Chris Connors

Making things is the best way to learn about our world.


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Comments

  1. mlange.myopenid.com says:

    Keeping balls in mice: Superglue the covers shut.
    Keeping keys on keyboards? Well, have lots of spare keyboards to pull replacement keys from.

    Students can disassemble old computers, and reassemble them onto a large piece of corrugated cardboard (Presentation-style) with zipties to hold it all up. It form a functional but visual representation of a computer.

    Nothing beats plugging a monitor, keyboard, mouse into a cardboard-mounted computer and having the students explain what each part does from the first-hand experience of ‘what happens if we don’t plug THIS cable in? or this one?’

  2. Blaine says:

    You’d be better off letting the kids try and repair an unloaded rifle than an unplugged computer monitor.

    Even if it’s been unplugged for years, the voltage stored inside is enough to kill someone.

    1. Chris Connors says:

      @Blaine
      Right on about keeping kids away from CRTs. I have only allowed it once or twice, and hovered over them nervously practically the whole time. As soon as I can, I like to get monitors out of my room. The possibilites for things to go wrong with a monitor are just too high.

      The vacuum tube can implode, scattering glass and all the nasty chemicals and heavy metals around the room. The capacitors hold loads of charge long after they have been unplugged. For the amount of learning they might get from opening a monitor, the experience just isn’t worth the potential for injury or hazardous discharge.

      Our town dump takes Cathode Ray Tube monitors at no charge, so every now and then I clear out any marginal monitors. Kids often say that they would like to take one out back and shoot it out, but no thanks. The environmental consequences are not good for the moments of pleasure.

  3. Gilberti says:

    “Keeping balls in mice: Superglue the covers shut.”

    Do that, and you can’t get into the mouse to clean it and it will eventually jam. Some mice do have a locking mechanism that can be easily activated and deactivated with a paperclip. I doubt that most students know about it.

    1. Chris Connors says:

      @gilberti good call on the mouse port problem. The works do get gunked up, especially when there are lots of different people using the lab. Optical mice are much better in schools and community labs than ball mice if only for this reason alone.

      I haven’t seen the paper clip lock mechanism on many mice, but it does sound like a nice feature in group labs.

  4. Temiu says:

    It’s a good thing she is such a good teacher showing them how to plug in keyboards into their CPU’s and putting CPU’s in boxes and installing things on their CPU’s and RRRRRRRRRAAAAAAGGGGGEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

  5. nerd1 says:

    Free Equipment : Landfill Transfer stations … not sure how that stuff works in a normal city but in the burbs and rural america the transfer stations are starting to have devoted ewast bins. Sometimes containing full running systems just slightly old …

    ugh. i guess kids look at ps2 connectors the way I grew up looking at those old monster keyboard connectors and the serial mice … remember needing them but find seeing them like dealing with an antique :-P

  6. mlange.myopenid.com says:

    Re: Gilberti

    That’s true, though unfortunately 5 years ago, the then-$10 ball mice weren’t quite so advanced. The risk/reward ratio of gluing mice shut favored 6 months or a year of having a mouse vs. having someone take the mouse ball and have no mouse at all.

    Thankfully, nowadays the $10 mice are optical :)

  7. mlange.myopenid.com says:

    Re: Gilberti

    Interesting point about the locking mechanisms, though I’ve never seen any of those in any of the mice I’ve disassembled, and I wouldn’t put it past any of the kids bent on destruction to let a lock made of plastic stop them.

    The risk/reward ratio of gluing mice shut and having them gunk up (as unpleasant as it was) did beat out having someone take the mouse ball and have no usable mouse at all.

    Thankfully, nowadays the $10 mice are optical :)

  8. sam says:

    When time is the main factor, then always call Geeks Mobile. Because they are the only company who can give the quick computer related services. Geeks Mobile is a reputable computer repair and service company. Every computer repair technician from this company has been neat, and intelligent. They are the best computer support company.

  9. Tinkergirl says:

    That’ll be the ‘broken window’ effect in full blast. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixing_Broken_Windows
    If something isnt broken, then people will generally try to keep it nice. If it is even a little broken, then obviously no-one cares about it, and it attracts more breakage and destruction.

  10. BigD145 says:

    I learned how to build computers by taking apart 486′s that had been dumped at my college campus. Components haven’t changed, just their connectors and form factors, so it’s easy to move from a 486 to a modern dual core.

    Fixing a ball mouse? Try tiny neodymium magnets. Just drill some holes and epoxy them so everything is flush.

  11. Stephen says:

    I’m stunned by the commentary here that seems to suggest that a CRT monitor is a ticking time bomb that’s just lying in wait to kill children. Are they actually?

    I’ve never been shocked by a CRT unit and it’s never imploded in my hands. I’ve never dropped one, I’ve never kicked one and I’ve never pushed one off a desk. I’m still alive, is it because I was gentle with my CRT monitor overlord?

    I don’t think it’s as much of a real and present danger than a lot of people are saying. I think it’s one of those “yeah, my mate knows someone who lost his HEAD when his monitor spontaneously exploded” myths. They’re very dangerous but that’s only if you can get through the thick glass and metal surrounding/protective cage. They’re very solid things, I never had a feeling that one would implode or spark while I plugged wires in etc. If I had thought that I’d never lean around the back.

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