Google shows Caldwell middle-schoolers how to build computers

Feb. 26, 2013 @ 09:03 AM

In a nondescript conference room at the Caldwell Education Center Monday, 23 middle-schoolers were up to their elbows in computer cables.

Over the span of six hours, those kids built six computers.

“The excitement’s pretty clear,” said Brad Bartlett, a teacher at Gamewell Middle School, as the kids started transmitting their first messages over the machines. “It’s so much different from what they normally do on a school day.”

The workshop was sponsored by Google as part of Students@Work Week, an initiative of the N.C. Business Committee on Education. Students from middle schools across the county were selected to participate.

On Monday, the kids were divided into six groups. Led by Enoch Moeller, the operations manager at Google’s Lenoir data center, each group assembled a computer part by part: the processor, the hard drive, the motherboard, the case. Then they booted them up, installed the Linux operating system and connected over a simple network.

For some students, assembly was the highlight of the day.

“My favorite part was – it had to be putting it together,” said Malaysia Lipford, a seventh-grader at William Lenoir Middle. “All the parts and stuff.”

By the end of the afternoon, six computers were assembled. They were shiny new machines, fully operational – loaded up, of course, with Google Chrome.

Six kids, determined by a drawing, got to take their group’s machine home – theirs because they built it, and theirs for keeps.

The room where the computers were assembled Monday buzzed with energy – and it was full of whip-smart kids.

“We asked the school district to identify 20 to 25 students from around the county who demonstrated some technical aptitude or some interest in computers, … who were really exceptional students,” Moeller said.

The kids who built computers with Google on Monday seemed, in most of their conversations and interactions, like normal 12- and 13-year-olds. But in little moments, that exceptional aptitude shone through.

As his team debated a password for their machine, Oak Hill seventh-grader David Moore suggested the number pi, which he knows to its 10th digit.

“That’s my alarm clock (code),” Moore said. “I have to punch it in when I wake up.”

And as Moeller and the two data center employees he brought along explained the ins and outs and computer engineering, they were peppered with questions.

Why can’t energy produced at the data center be converted into sustainable energy? What type of math, exactly, should you take to be a computer engineer? And how, if you owned one of Google’s self-driving cars, would you secure auto insurance?

But these weren’t just smart, tech-savvy kids. They’re smart kids who live in an area with one of highest concentrations of data centers in the world.

Moeller encouraged them all to go into computer science – to work at the Google data center in Lenoir or the Apple data center in Maiden, or thousands of miles away in Silicon Valley.

He acknowledged the perks of working for a tech giant like Google, but said the real benefit isn’t free pizza or onsite haircuts.

It’s getting to play all day. Getting to figure out how things work. Solving puzzles.

Moeller had a special message for the girls in the room – all of whom will enter a workforce where women are still deeply underrepresented in the technology sector.

“Hopefully today, we’ve shown you a little bit about how you can do this stuff,” he said. “You can build a computer. You can install the hardware. You can be a data center technician. You can be a software engineer. And you should not feel restricted based on the fact that you’re a girl.”

Some of the kids in the room knew exactly what they wanted to do already. They are future programmers, or engineers, or they want to go into the medical field but know they will need a solid grasp on technology to do so.

Brian Fox, an eighth-grader at William Lenoir Middle, wants to be a computer engineer and work in robotics.

“You basically get to build robots,” he said.

And Griffin Dilsaver, a seventh-grader at William Lenoir, already had built his own computer prior to the day’s event – a “Frankenstein” machine made up of different pieces and parts. Dilsaver became the troubleshooter of his group, helping solve problems with passwords and the initial loading of the operating system.

When asked if the workshop was easy for him, his answer was simple.

“Yep.”