North Carolina Students Build Computers
for Classrooms Across Their School District
Some of the teachers contributing to this year's ambitious Computer Engineering curriculum update project have been working with QTL (originally known as ExplorNet) for more than a decade. Here's the story of one who has built a quality program that's a "win-win-win."
NEWLAND, NC - In Avery County, NC, Hank Hardin's Computer Engineering students build every computer that goes into the school district's classrooms.
Some districts have abandoned the idea of letting students build computers on a widespread basis, but Hardin says the approach still works in Avery County thanks to "high-quality students" as well as administrators who have shown support from the beginning.
"We have the big advantage that we can still build computers for the school," Hardin says. "Because we have this good rapport with the network administrator, it works."
Hardin says the network administrator not only cooperated, he fought battles for the program. If teachers or administrators expressed concern that student-build computers would be sub-par, he argued they were wrong. Hardin says the results have won over the doubters.
"They know it's a win-win-win," Hardin says. "It is mutually beneficial. Students win and I win because we have a well-equipped up-to-date lab. And the school system wins, too."
Avery County High School was one of the first five schools to implement the ComPuter Recycling or CPR program in 1996. At that time, schools everywhere were in great need of classroom computers, and companies upgrading their infrastructures had a lot to donate. Students in the initial programs learned computer engineering skills while refurbishing donated machines or building inexpensive kits that then were put into classrooms in their district. Students learned real world skills, and schools saved a lot of money.
"Computers in the state contract were three times what we were building with kits," says Hardin.
Much has changed in the past decade. Schools' technology infrastructure has grown. Pre-built computers have gotten cheaper. Some technology administrators have become less eager to place refurbished computers on their networks.
But hands-on experience is still a crucial part of what is now known as QTL's Computer Engineering. And at Avery County High School, students are getting a lot of it.
When the school district orders new computers, it orders kits rather than pre-built PCs. The cost difference is not as great as it once was, but Hardin says his students build quality machines and his administrators see the value of the hands-on learning they get while doing it.
Students build the computers, experiment in the BIOS, load operating systems and set the machines up for use. High achievers go on to provide tech support assistance. A volunteer - a retired electrical engineer from the community - helps the program by coordinating the student tech support team. Some students wind up with extensive rights on the system. "Lots of responsibility goes with that," Hardin stresses, adding that "soft skills" are critical and quality control is essential.
"Some can't handle it," he says, and those who lack the maturity to represent the program well aren't placed in the tech support program. "The program's reputation is at stake and my reputation is at stake, and we just can't have that."
The course is not an easy elective, and Hardin has capitalized on the fact that it's seen as a challenge.
"The first day, it's right out the door," he says of the pacing of the course. "Those kids who should not be in there get out. The kids who can do well want that kind of course."
The hands-on approach is key to helping students understand the concepts they're learning. That in turn improves their performance on exams.
"We use the computers we're building to learn. Then we box them up and send them out. They're going to remember the fun we had and the things they learned. Then they'll remember the test they took. They'll learn more from it."
"I think somehow all these things got put in place that make it advantageous," Hardin concludes. "I have been blessed that we have this opportunity."
And the same can be said of Avery County students.
For more information, contact Robin Fred via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 888.507.3800.