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Booting up computer smarts

By Jeyling Chou

May 26, 2005 9:00 p.m.

Computers are permanent fixtures in the niches ““ cubicles,
dorm rooms ““ of everyday life. Social networks, workplace
operations, even individual identities have gone to the wires.

But few of the computer-dependent even understand what makes the
hardware tick or the mouse click.

Students at Dorsey High School in the Los Angeles Unified School
District had the opportunity to learn just that through an
after-school program coordinated by the UCLA chapter of Engineers
Without Borders.

Over several weeks, a group of high school students learned to
identify the parts that make a running computer, take them apart,
put them together, and ultimately take it home.

“Engineers Without Borders usually does international
humanitarian work situated in the ideas of sustainability and
environmental consciousness,” said Christine Lee, fifth-year
chemical engineering student in the Henry Samueli School of
Engineering and Applied Sciences.

While brainstorming with a friend on ways to locally spread the
message of sustainability, Lee came up with the idea of recycling
computer parts into the hands of high school students.

“You’re reducing waste and you’re recycling
things, but at the same time you can still use these perfectly
functioning computers,” Lee said.

With the groundwork laid and the materials collected, a workshop
was held at the beginning of the quarter to teach interested UCLA
students how to build a computer.

A surprising number of engineering students, herself included,
did not know the basics of computer parts, Lee said.

When the members of Project BOOTUP began making weekly trips to
Dorsey High School, the vocabulary and technical details they had
learned were reinforced through teaching.

“The first step was just to open it up and not be
intimidated by all the wires and things sticking out,” Lee
said.

“Once I got past that and once the high school students
started asking me a lot more questions about what things were, that
helped me learn at the same time,” she added.

Through the weekly visits to Dorsey, the UCLA students taught
their high school counterparts the vocabulary of hardware and
software, motherboards, and drivers.

Before BOOTUP’s involvement, the school’s computer
lab contained machines that were obsolete and dysfunctional. The
project helped provide the school with new computers from a
seemingly endless supply provided by personal, corporate and
several university departments.

“We hope to make it a learning process so they could do it
later on if they had to,” said Henry Pai, a fourth-year
electrical engineering student.

“Giving them some technology and helping them understand
some basic parts of it can cause some intrigue, and they might want
to learn more,” Pai said.

The education was dualistic, as the engineering students were
exposed to an educational environment so lacking in technology.
Michael Bruce, a third-year electrical engineering student,
considers the technical skills he gained secondary to the
experience of gaining perspective.

“I’ve learned a lot about people from different
backgrounds, and people growing up with different
experiences,” Bruce said. “These kids don’t have
laptops. These computers that we’ve helped them put together
and take home would be taken for granted by a lot of other kids,
but it means so much to them.”

The project is expected to continue through the summer, and
hopefully in the years to come.

“From the engineering standpoint you’re absorbed
into school without any direct contact with how you can help other
people with their education,” Pai said.

In its short existence thus far, Project BOOTUP has upheld the
outreach and sustainability efforts that distinguish Engineers
Without Borders.

“Most of the engineering student groups are very
technical, and that’s cool because they apply the things they
learn in the classroom,” Lee said. “But if you can
bring it out in the community, it’s exposure for engineering
students and for the profession and exposure for people in the
community just to know what we’re doing.”

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