Hardware Week and a Valley.

For my 7th and 8th grade CS classes, I set a goal to help students develop a basic understanding of computer hardware and architecture. Early in the year we did lessons on binary and hexadecimal information, the internet and how information is divided into packets and transmitted through data centers. I have had “Hardware Week” once a semester to celebrate the stuff that actually goes into a computer.

One activity for Hardware Week is a computer dissection! I ask for donations from parents, and it’s amazing how many have old computers they’re willing to donate for “science”. I give the students tools and a safety talk, and allow them to open the computer, see what’s inside, sort the parts, label them, and do some research about them.

The parts can generally be sorted into 6 subsystems:

Processor (generally just the main CPU, which is usually removable, big and square, with lots of pins)

Short-term storage (the RAM, usually removable)

Long-term storage (things like the hard drive, CD-ROM, sometimes even floppies)

I/O (anything from a USB port to the keyboard, monitor, wifi card, ethernet card, video card)

Power (batteries or AC/DC power supply)

Heat (fans, heat sinks)

Last semester, I had the kids create posters about their computers and we did a little museum walk.

Posters that go along with labeled parts for a museum walk of dissected computers.

Posters that go along with labeled parts for a museum walk of dissected computers.

This year, I had the students create a Google presentation, set their parts out around their slide presentation, and do a museum walk of others’ computers. It was really cool. The kids loved it and had some great aha moments. Awesome conversations, tons of curiosity, and for the most part, it met the goal of helping students understand computer hardware and how it fits into system architecture.

Someone built this computer with love. It had an AMD K6 processor and a good old Sound Blaster audio card. A real treasure!

Someone built this computer with love. It had an AMD K6 processor and a good old Sound Blaster audio card. A real treasure!

Laptops are interesting to dissect. Everything is smaller and a little harder to access. The cooling system is tinier and more intricate. That shiny film was behind the LCD screen. How does THAT work?

Laptops are interesting to dissect. Everything is smaller and a little harder to access. The cooling system is tinier and more intricate. That shiny film was behind the LCD screen. How does THAT work?

Cute, right? I had so much fun with this group of kids and I was just as engaged as they were.

Things were really going well until I taught my 5th period class, and then I hit my valley. The students in that class didn’t handle the responsibility of dissecting a computer well at all.

Students damaged my pliers and screwdrivers trying to brute-force computers open.
They pounded, stomped, and shattered long past the point of dissection.
They destroyed a couple of chassis completely.
They broke motherboards in half.
We had a few gashes in hands.
One group tried to puncture a lithium battery.
One group shattered the glass inside what I think was a CD burner, and got glass on the floor.
One group used screwdrivers to pry all of the chips, capacitors, and resistors off the motherboard, stomped on the board, and left it on the floor.
A student in the same group treated the power supply similarly.
They argued over which parts they would get to take home as souvenirs instead of analyzing their work.

It was really stressful. I had envisioned walking around with my clipboard, marking observations and answering student questions about their natural curiosity as they carefully removed and labeled parts – much like things in my other class. It didn’t go that way and was really stressful. I called a couple of students back from their 6th period classes and made them clean up. They flat-out denied they made the messes, even though I witnessed the destruction first hand. At the end of class, a solid-state hard drive went missing, one that I promised its donor I would recycle.
Only two groups made any progress at all on their presentations, and not one student looked around the classroom and helped to clean it up at the end of class.

I went home and I talked it out with supportive friends, had a glass of wine and cried a little, felt like a horrible teacher all weekend. Having your second-to-last class of the week go down like that will mess with your psyche. I saw one of the parents at a school function and she told me how stressed her son was that he would get a bad grade. I also got this e-mail from another student.

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About dupriestmath

I'm a former software engineer who has taught middle school math and computer science for the past 6 years. I believe every kid has the right to be a thinker. I started this blog to save resources for integrating programming in the Common Core math classroom. I also use it to save my lessons and reflections from teaching budding computer scientists! Coding has transformed how I teach and think. You'll love what it does for you. You should try it.

4 responses to “Hardware Week and a Valley.”

  1. Vicky Sedgwick says :

    I’ve gone the other way on this. I take the computer apart and the students need to document what the parts are and then put it back together and boot it up. It could still be destructive (and we’ve had some bent pins but nothing intentional) but maybe has less potential for that because they’re building something rather than deconstructing something … or maybe I’ve just been lucky. Of course, you need computers that do still work and have an OS installed in order to do this – they don’t have to be real current computers but they have to be able to boot.

  2. ipadlessonplans says :

    You rock for caring and going the extra mile to offer a cool lesson that is fun. In our Makerspace two kids did a take-apart and loved it! I’m sorry it got out of control with 5th period…late in the day, late in the semester, one leader and the rest blind followers that get sucked in? Arhg. I would be as disappointed, crushed. I’d make them write a letter in class the next day “try and make it up to me”. Bravely, you approached that class the next day, I’m sure. How did it go?

    • dupriestmath says :

      Thank you so much for your comment. It took me all week to process this with my students and blog about it, but I did in the next post. Late in the day and late in the semester (and late in their middle school career!) were all certainly factors. Take-aparts are great fun but you need to steel yourself to take the risk again after a difficult lesson!

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