I am head of the Elementary School Science Club in Greenwood and this week we started one of my favorite units: computers.
The goal of this unit is to show students the overall theory of how computers work. Many of these kids don’t see the computer as anything special anymore; it’s an appliance like a lamp or a toaster that simply works. The concepts of hardware, software, memory, and RAM are all lost on them. The best way to show kids how computers work is similar to teaching them how an engine works: take it apart, rebuild it, and make it work better than before.
Last year I did this for the first time and nearly tore my hair out. I had two pretty well-equipped machines, older but not ancient, and I loaded them up with the excellent Ubuntu brand of Linux. Now, Ubuntu runs like a dream on newer computers, has great components, installs quickly, and if I were so inclined I could probably cut the cord and use it day to day if it were not for a few Windows/Mac holdout applications. That said, these older machines are now, well, old. Period. Two even OLDER machines were then donated by our music teacher, who wanted the computers retired and put to good use. A whole wall of my classroom looks like a junkyard.
As it happens, all four computers are too slow to load Ubuntu. I tried a few alternatives, but most Linux installs are very complicated (at least for me) and require you to know at least some code. I don’t know code. I don’t have time to learn, and expecting that from my students is crazy. Luckily, I discovered this man’s best friend: Puppy Linux.
As its name implies, Puppy is very small and very friendly—129 MB in all. It installs onto a CD or flash drive very easily. Then, just insert your disk, reboot your machine, and within five seconds (really, it’s that fast) you have a slick little operating system complete with web browser, word processor, spreadsheet software, and even a few multimedia programs and games. And it does this all WITHOUT INSTALLING OR ERASING ANYTHING! Any changes or new software you add are put on the nearest disk (hard drive, flash drive, or CD) in a hidden file without affecting your main OS.
Everything is very, very easy to use—easy enough for my 5th graders to go it alone and learn the ropes of what an OS does. All the network settings are easy to find and we managed to get our proxy settings and a new browser installed in a few minutes. I found myself excited over a yellowed, 10-year-old tower; in short, this amazing OS really breathes new life into old machines, making them great again.
One student took a disk home; she and her mother got it running on her laptop, connected it to wireless, and checked mom’s Facebook. Two boys who live only for tractors and hunting are excited by installing network printers. One even wants to see if he can use Puppy Linux to fix up his grandma’s computer.
Here’s what my students had to say:
“Some of the computers were slow, but we got them to run. It was surprising that all that could run off of one little disk.”
“I asked my mom if I could try something, and she said ‘Sure, just don’t break anything.’ I had some trouble at first, but my dad helped and when we restarted, it worked.”
Puppy can be used to teach computers to students, or to refurbish an old lab with a basic browser/word processing setup. I am a Mac user now, full of smugness over the stability of my machine; but seriously, if I still had a PC I would keep a Puppy disk around just in case I got a virus or the machine died on me. Within a few minutes, I could pull off my files and check my email using this adorable life raft of an OS. If you want to have a little geeky fun, download this Puppy. It is a great way to explore Linux without compromising your machine.