Nonprofit teaches tech skills, fights inequity

Jane Ridgeway/Town Crier
Egan Junior High student volunteers refurbish old MacBooks at last week’s EqOpTech workshop.

Where some might have seen a pile of refuse, Terence Lee saw a treasure trove – and an opportunity to help others.

When Lee, a Los Altos High junior, learned that the Los Altos School District owned a collection of first- and second-generation MacBooks too old for the district to maintain, he started thinking.

“(The laptops) were sitting and collecting dust,” Lee said, noting that if the district donated them to an e-waste recycling program, they likely would have been dismantled and stripped for gold components. “But I thought we could put them to good use.”

Those laptops found a second life in the Computer-in-a-Box program, which Lee’s nonprofit EqOpTech has administered at Los Altos High, Sunday Friends and, most recently, in a series of workshops at Egan Junior High.

In the workshops, junior high volunteers refurbish the machines, equipping each with the operating system Lubuntu, a lightweight variant of Linux and Ubuntu. Lubuntu frees up processing power for older-model laptops to use modern applications that access the cloud.

Over the course of four weeks, the tight-knit group of Egan workshop participants refurbished approximately 25 MacBooks, which will be distributed to Los Altos schools for the use of students who do not have computer access at home.

Aiming for equity

The problem EqOpTech aims to solve, Lee said, is one of equity. In an educational climate that emphasizes teamwork and technology integration, some students still may be left behind.

“I find that there’s a lot of projects where students are required to work outside of school,” he said. “They have to remain in contact with group members in order to succeed. Without the cloud, they can’t see what their partners are working on. Without a computer, there’s a lot that they can’t do.”

No matter how innovative the classroom, there’s no guarantee that every student has a top-of-the-line MacBook Pro waiting at home for RAM-devouring iMovie projects.

Computer-in-a-Box workshops are designed not only to bridge the gap in access, but also to build young workshop participants’ own skills as they tinker, toy and occasionally plead with the old laptops.

On the final day of the Egan workshop, the lab was abuzz with anticipation as the laptops booted up, many blinking happily to life with Lubuntu installed, others … not.

“What? Again?” an unlucky volunteer lamented as his MacBook misbehaved.

“Sometimes it’s about convincing it to follow the commands you’re giving it,” said Peter Swenson, the Egan teacher who has welcomed the workshop into his lab after school.

Skill-building and patience

According to Lee, though many student volunteers were already tech-savvy, he saw growth throughout the four-week workshop.

“They may know a lot about how computers work,” he said, “but they didn’t know how to partition a hard drive” to add a second operating system. “Now they know more about how to do things for themselves.”

Egan student Mihir Mirchandani said he learned valuable skills during the workshop, most notably: “Ubuntu – and patience. Patience is a big thing.” Eyeing a stack of refurbished laptops, he added, “I think these were made before I was born.”

Swenson said that in addition to the benefit to elementary-age laptop recipients and junior high volunteers, he also sees the high school students who run EqOpTech learning from the experience.

“It’s been really rewarding, and it’s giving high school students a chance to teach and instruct, and to lead,” Swenson said.

The Egan workshop has already outgrown its original ambitions: Volunteers on the final day enthusiastically affirmed that they would keep coming as long as the program continued. Lee, too, has further schemes, and is currently seeking grant funding to purchase replacement batteries and power supplies for the aging donated machines.

EqOpTech’s work, Lee said, is far from done.

“These types of projects take time and commitment,” he added, citing the challenge of refining his instructional guides for the young volunteers. “I’m still making changes as I go. It’s never one thing that you do and then it’s set for life.”

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