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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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