The MOUSE Squad
Teams of Students in New York City and Other Places Are Being Trained as Technology Troubleshooters
The computer server in the library has been down since 12:45 p.m. The machines in Mr. Paci’s classroom need to be hooked up to laser printers. Someone needs to install Visual Basic on the computers in Room 304. And at least one machine in the programming office is infected with a virus.
The 10 Louis D. Brandeis High School students clustered around computer technician Ty Ashaolu on this cold, raw October afternoon listen closely as he lists the school’s various technology headaches of the day. Clad in jeans, hoodies, and T-shirts, they slouch around Ashaolu’s cluttered desk or lean against the dull-green and yellow filing cabinets behind them, the shouts of their classmates in the nearby cafeteria occasionally piercing the quiet room.
Their marching orders in place, the students nod confidently, then head out in pairs, armed with the software and smarts to help them serve as troubleshooters for the 2,850-student school’s complex technology infrastructure. They are part of an after-school technology help-desk program started by MOUSE (Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education), a national nonprofit group based here in New York City that teaches students how to take apart and fix computers, and acquire the communication, problem-solving, and team-building skills that will help them in the classroom and the working world.
That’s a vital role for schools such as Brandeis High. The school, which serves many low-income and academically struggling students, has several hundred powerful computers and a handful of interactive high-tech whiteboards. Yet it can’t afford to pay enough professionals to run its help desk.
“You can get schools wired and [provide] the professional development and good [online] content, but the missing piece is continuing technical support,” says Calvin Hastings, the senior director of programs for MOUSE. “Here’s an opportunity for students to really be a part of their school community and provide real value.”
The MOUSE program is part of a trend toward more use of students to provide help-desk support in their schools, according to a 2002 survey commissioned by the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va.
Kentucky, Michigan, and Mississippi are among the states that have sponsored student technology-support programs, and national programs—such as Generation TECH by Generation YES, a technology-grant project started by the 9,000-student Olympia, Wash., school district—have gained momentum.
More than half the school leaders in the 811 districts surveyed for the NSBA report said their students were providing technical support, which includes troubleshooting problems, cabling and setting up equipment, and maintaining computers and other technology.
“These findings reveal an unprecedented leadership role for students in school technology,” the report on the survey says. “They gain experience and skills through performing hands-on, authentic learning tasks, tutoring others, and contributing to effective—and creative—use of school technology.”
Some technology experts have voiced concern over the possibility of students accessing academic or other confidential data when they are providing help-desk support.
“If done the right way, this can be a great benefit to students,” says Keith Krueger, the executive director of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking. “If done the wrong way, it can expose the schools to great liability.”
The consortium worked with other education technology groups, including MOUSE, to develop a Web site that addresses concerns about security and liability issues in student technology support programs.
MOUSE officials emphasize that students don’t have access to sensitive data, and are always supervised by an adult.
Andrew Rasiej, the founder of MOUSE, believes students are an asset, not a liability.
“Students should be considered partners, not products,” he says. “[They] are the most underutilized resource in the school system.”
Brandeis High sits in Manhattan’s tony Upper West Side, in the same neighborhood as the Juilliard School of Music and Columbia University. But unlike students at those elite schools, Brandeis students must walk through airport-style metal detectors and past a phalanx of school security officers every morning before classes.
More than 82 percent of Brandeis students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; the school’s graduation rate hovers around 40 percent.
Wilson Ortiz, 17, walks through those metal detectors daily. The junior is the team leader for the Brandeis MOUSE squad, and he says that the program has helped him decide to major in computer science in college.
“I have more understanding of what I want to do now,” he says. “I think I’ll be ahead of other [college] students.”
The school has weathered abysmal academic scores, poor graduation rates, and low staff and student morale. But now it’s on the upswing, in part, because of new school leadership, say some city officials, teachers and students. Student scores improved enough for Brandeis to be taken off the state’s list of struggling schools last year.
The MOUSE squad serves an important role in the school’s recent improvement efforts.
“It’s important that the kids feel empowered to make schools a better place,” says Principal Eloise Messineo.
Working on the squad puts members in touch with many other students and teachers whom they might otherwise never have met. And the technology problems they face force them to think logically, says Khetar Marshall, 17, a second-year squad member.
“We look at problems from all points of view because we have to figure it out,” says Marshall. “And we don’t just fix things. We have to help and explain the [solution] to teachers and students, so they know how to do it.”
The problems the students fix include basic technical glitches such as printers that won’t print and computers that freeze up, to more sophisticated puzzles such as eradicating computer viruses and figuring out why one of the school’s servers crashed in the middle of the day for no apparent reason.
One recent afternoon in the old records room, as pop band Maroon 5 plays on a computer monitor and a staff walkie-talkie crackles intermittently in the background, technology adviser Ashaolu speaks to the students, his speech sprinkled with technical shorthand that only other techies would know: IP (Internet Protocol), CMD (Command), MMC (Microsoft Management Console).
Then he and four students walk down the now-quiet halls and up to a third-floor computer lab. They say hello to a school safety officer, then walk into a room that’s Spartan except for 32 computers. The air is stuffy, and the hands on an old wall clock have stopped at 11:11. Each student takes a row of about eight computers—and under Ashaolu’s direction, they reconfigure them so students won’t be able to use restricted programs such as instant messaging.
“Check the DNS [Domain Name Service] numbers,” Ashaolu says, rattling off a string of figures. “Then kick [the computer] off the network, and kick it back on.”
After a few false starts, the students rapidly fix each Dell computer on their assigned row. Ashaolu nods in satisfaction. On to the next problem.
MOUSE started the student help-desk program when Hastings and Rasiej realized that schools’ tight budgets and expanding list of academic-accountability requirements meant they didn’t have the time or money to keep their technology networks humming. Most companies have at least one support technician per 350 employees, according to the Help Desk Institute, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based association that represents the technical service industry.
But many of New York City’s public schools, whose enrollments range from a few hundred to several thousand, were lucky to have one technical-support employee per school.
In response, the MOUSE Squad program began in 2000, first in three schools in the 1.1 million-student city system. It’s mushroomed to 49 schools and may be in up to 100 schools in New York City before the year is out. The program is also starting to gain traction nationwide, with MOUSE squads in schools in Hartford and Stamford, Conn.; and Centreville, Mich. MOUSE also supports a student tech-support program in some Chicago schools.
The program targets high-poverty, high-minority schools. The average percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunches hovers around 75 percent in schools with MOUSE squads; an average of 40 percent of the schools’ students are Hispanic, and 32 percent are African-American.
Each school with a MOUSE Squad saves about $14,000 a year in technical help-desk costs, according to financial calculations based on Citigroup Inc.’s help-desk model. New York City schools that use the squads have saved a total of more than $700,000 since 2000.
The giant financial-services company has donated $50,000 to MOUSE. Peter Fischer, a former director of information-technology operations for Salomon Smith Barney, now part of Citigroup’s global Corporate and Investment Bank, sits on the MOUSE advisory board.
“Imagine every single [technical] problem a school has, and imagine if they have to call central office to fix each one,” Fischer says in a telephone interview from his home in Vermont. “The cost would be astronomical. Here, students are getting involved in networks, and the mental gyrations they go through to figure out a problem helps them, too.”
While MOUSE has made big inroads in shoring up some of the city’s school technology networks, the help-desk program still faces many challenges, Hastings says. Many extracurricular activities have been cut because of efforts to re- direct resources to accountability-related programs, and schools with tight budgets find it hard to pay MOUSE faculty advisers for their many hours of after-school work.
“That’s about $4,000 a year,” Hastings adds. “For principals making budget decisions, that’s a tough decision to make.”
The high teacher-turnover rate in urban schools also means MOUSE faculty advisers sometimes don’t stick around very long, and the organization is trying to increase the number of girls involved in the program. Girls make up 38 percent of the students in MOUSE squads; Hastings wants to increase that proportion to 50 percent.
The hushed cubicle atmosphere, the foyer’s plush red armchairs, and the cool modern artwork on the walls of Li & Fung USA, the American subsidiary of a Hong Kong-based apparel supply-chain firm, seem light-years away from the noisy, institutional feel of Brandeis High.
But 16-year old Sukhanwer Ali Khan seems right at home. The Brandeis High junior works in this 150-employee office twice a week as an information-technology intern. He has reconfigured computers, taken inventory on hardware assets, cleaned up the many confusing cables in the server room, and taken some help-desk calls.
Khan is one of a handful of MOUSE Squad students who have interned or job-shadowed employees at Fortune 500 companies such as Citigroup and global financial services firm UBS, both with offices in New York City.
His mentor, Hermann Hesse, the technology-operations director for Li & Fung, says Khan was nervous when he first started working at the company. But he gave the student pointers on how to communicate with adults in a work environment: Don’t interrupt people if they’re in the middle of a conversation; knock on their office doors; address them respectfully; and do not take an employee’s sometimes curt replies personally.
“I asked Ali to help someone—and he said he didn’t like to talk,” Hesse says, laughing. “And I said, ‘You’ve got to talk to get things done, no matter whether it’s technology or not.’ So he did.”
Khan says he works on more advanced technology problems at his internship than at Brandeis High, and has become more comfortable with Li & Fung’s casual yet businesslike environment. “It was kind of scary at first because everyone has so much knowledge, and you’re not sure if you’re going to fit in,” he recalls.
Hesse adds that Khan liked the work so much that he asked to stay after the summer internship ended. The company agreed to have Khan stay on if he kept his grades up and scored well on the SAT.
The professional experience has raised Khan’s expectations for college. Before the internship, he says, he was planning to attend a local two-year college. But now, he is thinking of applying to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Technology support is a means to an end, not an end in itself for students such as Khan, Hesse says. “When students think of technology, they think just of programming, or help-desk support. But there’s also animation, architectural design, airplane design,” he says in a telephone interview from his office in Manhattan’s Garment District.
“MOUSE is great,” he adds, “because it gives them exposure to see how technology is being used in a big company.”
Carole Wacey, the executive director of MOUSE, agrees: “A lot of the kids live in their own little worlds. We want to shake that up a little bit and have them see beyond that. We want to open their eyes up to the possibilities of technology.”
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Vol. 24, Issue 10, Pages 32-35Published in Print: November 3, 2004, as The MOUSE Squad