The Computer Take-Apart (revisited).
A few years ago, I wrote this post about my struggles to have middle-schoolers do a computer take-apart and meet the high expectations I had in mind for them. I am happy to report I didn’t quit doing computer take-aparts. I did try to learn from those hard lessons and continue improving on it. Hardware Week now runs pretty smoothly and kids report it’s their favorite unit. I do this set of lessons in my 7th/8th grade Computer Science Explorations class. It’s a great one for the week right before spring break, or whenever you need a little something different to mix things up.
Prior to the lesson, I ask parents if they have any old computers they have been wanting to get rid of but didn’t want to hassle with recycling them. I have a small budget I can use for hardware recycling, so I have workplace services come and take the computers away for recycling when the take-apart is done. I accept laptops as well as desktops, and it’s fun when I have a mix of both. I stock up on tools, especially small phillips screwdrivers, flathead screwdrivers, a few small Torx screwdrivers, some pliers and a few wire cutters.
First, we learn about the basic structure of computers (I also relate this structure to micro:bits, since my CS students learn to program them in Python). We do several card sorts in which I give students a sheet with pictures and descriptions of computer hardware, and they have to sort them into categories: input, output, processing, storage. Sometimes I include Power in one of the categories. Although pieces of hardware like the battery and fan don’t have anything to do with the flow of information, they are visible inside a computer and really important to its operation. You can find the card sort at the link below!
Next, I have the students watch a movie and fill out an organizer with it. The movie is wonderful – it’s called Lifting the Lid and although it’s from the early 2000’s, the information is still relevant and it’s very entertaining and informative. The movie is expensive to buy, but I was able to reserve it from our public library. I had to get it from Prospector as it was at a local university.
Here’s the link for the movie. The instructor’s guide, linked on the same page, is the organizer I used. I circled the most important questions for the students to fill out, and paused the movie at certain points to work with the kids on filling out the organizer.
We then have a quick safety and procedure talk about the computer take-apart. I have learned to keep the rules really short and simple.
- If you have a laptop, take the battery out first and bring it directly to me. Don’t take anything else apart until the battery is out.
- Wash your hands well afterward to avoid getting lead in your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Do not break any screens.
- Many computers are meant to be taken apart. Look for the places where the computer has seams, screws, levers or tabs.
- As you remove pieces, label them. Each group will get a sheet of labels and some tape. Sometimes you may find more than one piece in a category.
I give each group a sheet with labels of computer parts, plus a couple of blank labels in case they find things that aren’t on the originals.
I circulate around as the groups are taking their computers apart and help them identify parts as they remove them. Sometimes they’re tricky even for me! When opening laptops, sometimes the easiest way to access the motherboard is to take the keyboard apart and come in through the top – which of course kids love and requires a little extra time cleaning up at the end because keys get all over the floor.
When the computers are dissected, we begin a group show -and- tell for their computers. I put prompts up on the board and ask groups to hold up a part that matches the prompt. We go around the room and every group explains what they’re holding. They rotate group members for each part. Example prompts:
- Hold up something that stores data.
- Hold up your CPU.
- Hold up something that is for input.
- Hold up something that is for output.
- Hold up something that’s used for cooling your computer.
- Hold up something used to power the computer.
- Hold up something used to connect to a network.
- Hold up the motherboard.
At the end, I do allow kids to take home a souvenir as long as it’s not a hard drive, solid-state drive, or a battery. I keep those and make sure they get recycled properly. We spend quite a bit of time placing parts in big moving boxes, which I tape up and label for recycling.
I could do a formal assessment. I choose not to. The show-and-tell is a helpful wrap-up and taking a computer part home is something the kids really enjoy as a reward for cleaning up well. I had a student tell me the other day that he took his motherboard home, set it in a frame, filled it with resin and hung it on a wall!
It has ended up being a fun set of lessons that are also great for learning. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.