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.
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.
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.
Hey Mrs. Dupriest, it’s ____. I just wanted to email you and thank you for letting us dissect the computers. I had a lot of fun with the project. The Laptop Ram is really cool, because just 5-10 years ago when we had DDR2 a stick that size would have only a small amount of memory, like half a gigabyte, whereas this really small stick can do 4 GB. I was talking to my dad about it. I just wanted to thank you for letting us do the project. It’s been a really fun semester.
The student may have been nervous about how angry I was and was heading me off. It was a pretty good strategy if so, because it did give me pause.
But I’m heading into tomorrow when I see the same class again. I do not intend to spend another day on the activity. I planned on it lasting for two days and that was it for hardware week. However, the students need a chance to seriously reflect on their part in the failure of the lesson… and I need a chance to reflect on my part too.
So I’m asking you, friends, what’s your “damage control” lesson? What do you do when a lesson goes so badly that you need to process the failure with your entire class… when almost every kid lets you down but you want to give them (and yourself) a chance to make it right without beating the lesson to death?
What do you do?
And, side note, is there a better way you’ve found to teach students about computer architecture and hardware that’s engaging and slightly less unsafe?