One Teacher, One Classroom, One Amazing Computer LabIn today’s struggling economy, we find many US school districts strapped for funding which, in turn, places our children’s education at risk.

To address this issue and to ensure that students are able to garner at least basic computer concepts, one innovative teacher took matters into his own hands. With a computer budget of $0, an Alameda County school district teacher built his own computer lab. No, he wasn’t an heir to a fortune or in any way independently wealthy, but he was resourceful and found a way to collect and breathe new life into old, discarded computers. His tenaciousness, organization, and foresight is certainly a novel approach that may be worth emulating.

What Happens to Old Computers That People Don’t Want?

Think about it. Many colleges teach outdated computer skills and use older equipment. In these cases, the students will receive a degree, but are then expected to bring themselves up to date. In the case of younger children, older computers will allow them to learn keyboarding and other basic computer skills. Fortunately, these older computers are available in excess and consumers in California who choose to upgrade to a laptop and discard their old desktop computer face one of two choices. The first, and least desirable choice, is to discard their old desktop computer (and monitor) in a landfill or, better yet, dump it on the side of a back country road or down a ravine. Surprising? Not really. Considering the fees charged by landfills in the northern California foothills, one cannot be surprised when I tell you that discarding old appliances, tires, computers, and other garbage on the roadside is more common than one would think. For many who have no disposable income, dumping has become a way of life. It seems that they were the children whose mothers came in and cleaned up after them and they are now content to allow country road crews to clean up the messes they make.

The second choice that California consumers have, and one with a more desirable outcome, is to recycle their older computers. With this in mind, a 2005 California mandate created a recycling program that was meant to encourage this avenue of disposal and to circumvent illegal dumping in California. The plan was targeted towards the recycling of computers, monitors, and laptops, but also included all other electronic devices. To cover the cost of the program, the recycling fee was paid when a consumer bought the product.

What Did This Teacher Do to Breathe New Life into Systems That Were Allegedly DOA?

The teacher, identified as Robert Litt, discovered some interesting facts when he started scrounging around for computers. Here is what he learned:

  • Most Windows-based computers ran slowly because they had been infected with viruses or malware.
  • Most of these computers had hardware that was basically sound.
  • Once Windows was removed and the hard disk was cleaned, installing a version of Linux breathed new life into the systems.

Through his research, Litt discovered that even systems made back in 2002 with 512 MB of RAM could handle Linux. However, Litt wanted to make the best out of what he was able to gather together for his students, so he sought help from a local Linux user group. Fortunately, this group of individuals, whose main objective is to instruct consumers on how to use open source software, was more than happy to lend assistance to the project.

As Litt proceeded with his project, he also learned that finding old computers was much easier than he had envisioned. In fact, he found that both businesses and homeowners had old systems sitting around collecting dust and that the owners were happy to part with these relics. Of course it didn’t hurt that, since these were educational donations, they were given tax deductions for their generosity — and it saved them the hassle of having to dispose of the systems themselves. In addition, to top off the reasons they would never voice, they were able to feel good about having their old system used for an excellent cause.

After reading about what this man has accomplished, it made me ask myself why other school districts aren’t doing this? What about third world countries? Since Linux open source software is free to all, don’t you think that this would be a great way to recycle used equipment and squeeze a few more years of life out of our aging electronics?

Innovative? Definitely. Resourceful? Without a doubt. Driven by someone with foresight? Most decidedly. What this one teacher has effectively demonstrated is that old computers can be brought back from the dead and become useful tools. In other words: Why go the way of the disposable society when you can effectively use something for the betterment of our children and save a few tax dollars in the process?

What do you think? Comments welcome.