I like to think that the science club is a great opportunity for my students who are gifted in math and science. I also like to think that it’s a chance for me to play with any number of toys that make my inner 10-year-old squeal with glee. It is probably both.
I think at times that science is too often treated as something on an ivory tower, that the image of a scientist in his white gloves and lab coat, seemingly knowing everything does not make it approachable to children.
Real science is exciting, fun, dirty, and full of fumbling and surprises, but always pushes at the boundaries of understanding. I am going off on a tangent here and I know it, but I am going somewhere.
We teach computers like they are something complicated (and they are); and in many ways, due to the nature of how much a computer costs and network security, we keep the kids in the dark about how they actually work. I spend a lot of my time teaching kids about how to make spreadsheets and presentations and format paragraphs in Word, but very little time talking about this machine and how it actually works. I wanted to teach how a computer works in my science club, a special, smaller activity for the kids who got their “badges” in electronics earlier in the year.
I thought about how best to teach it and I was brought back to visions of my high school Agriculture teacher, Mr. Mier (yes, I was in FFA, but only a year, long enough to win my school’s creed-speaking contest: I believe in the future of agriculture…). Mr. Mier had us take apart and put back together a small engine; simple enough, but we were free then to adapt it any way we wanted. A few of us advanced the timing gears and shaved down the governors. If this engine were strapped to a real lawnmower, we had no doubt that it would have been the fastest mower in three counties. The shop was full of things like that—the welding class putting together the frame of a go-kart, an old tractor that was being re-built, and numerous other projects.
It was then that I thought about treating computers like a shop class. We took two old clunker computers donated by my ever-patient tech co-coordinator, took them apart, replaced what we could with spare parts, labeled everything on them and put them back together. These two computers, loaded with Linux (more on that later) are my shop computers. They can be loaded with any software the kids want. They can be tinkered with endlessly; a blank slate where kids can learn by doing.
We named them Frank and Stein.