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Gifted Philadelphia Youths Learn How Computers Operate--the Hard Way

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"Gifted children are not just happy with knowing how to work something," says Ann M. Burrell, a teacher at Philadelphia's Laura H. Carnell School. "They would like to know how it works and how it's put together."

At an age when many students are content to sit back and watch computers perform their "magic," Ms. Burrell's class of gifted 4th, 5th, and 6th graders built one from surplus parts.

The idea grew out of a discussion between Steven Kushner, 9 years old, and his father, Harvey, a computer buff. Mr. Kushner then wrote to Ms. Burrell suggesting that the class hold bake sales, visit stores that sell surplus computer parts, and write letters to manufacturers soliciting the money, parts, and manuals that would be needed to build and use a computer.

Mr. Kushner, who had built two computers at home, said he was willing to donate his time to help the students with the task.

Ms. Burrell, who has been teaching computer literacy for about three years and has studied the subject during her summers, agreed.

And so the class of 14 students, which had learned to program the classroom's Apple desktop model using basic and was tackling the logo programming language, took what Mr. Kushner called "a giant leap beyond that, because now they know what makes a computer tick."

Although the class raised about $130 through bake sales, none of it was needed to purchase the components of the computer. Two computer-surplus stores donated the parts, including four disk drives--one of which never functioned and is now used as a paperweight--two power sources, memory chips, a "motherboard," a keyboard, a monitor, a cabinet, and "miles and miles" of wire to link the electronic pieces together.

"When computer equipment is just several years old it goes on the surplus market where you can get if for a penny on the dollar," Mr. Kushner explained. "Disk drives that once sold for $300 to $400 you can get for $50 or less."

In addition, he said, the class wrote to computer companies for manuals and schematics that laid out the inside workings of the single-board computer.

After weeks of studying the plans, testing motors, disk drives, and power sources, checking the chips, crystals, and resistors on their motherboard, connecting wires, soldering, and drilling, the students encased their 64-kilobyte computer system in a donated soundproof cabinet that stands four feet tall and 18 inches square.

What might take an individual 60 to 80 hours to build took the class of 14 students 25 hours over a 12-week period from January to May, Mr. Kushner said.

"The way we went about it, it didn't cost the school a dime," he added. "The only thing the kids will pay for is a printer that will cost them about $140. Old printers are hard to fix, and new printers no one wants to give you."

Through their letter-writing campaign, the students also received a free copy of the popular Word Star word-processing program from Mi8cro Pro and a box of blank diskettes from the International Business Machines Corporation.

In addition, the students learned firsthand how a computer works, a lesson they say will help them when they use computers later on in school, at work, or when they themselves become parents.

"I learned about the technology of the computer and the parts inside it," said 12-year-old Mara Morganstein, a 6th grader. "In the future, they'll probably have many computers and you'll probably have to learn a lot about computers to get a job."

The make-it-yourself computer is better, Steven Kushner, a 4th grader, said, "because it's not all covered up like a company-made computer. You can open it up when it's running and see how it works."

Added 9-year-old Vanessa Margolis, a 4th grader: "With computers, a lot of people say: 'What do I do?' I won't know exactly what to do, but I'll have a basic idea of it. I can just ask a few simple questions. I won't have to ask a couple hundred questions."

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