How to teach children about computers

This Saturday a local company is hosting an event to allow residences to dump old computer and telephone equipment, and have it get properly recycled or disposed of for free.  I pretty much only have old computer equipment, some of which I use, some of which I store for the day when I'll need it again.  That day has never come, so it is time to unload some junk.

Among the treasures leaving my basement is an old 486.  This computer has a lot of good memories for me.  It was the first real PC my parents ever bought our family growing up (we used Amigas before that).  Later when they were going to throw it out, I took it in order to build a router.  And so it became the  first PC I ever used to install Linux (Slackware, of course!).  Then, today, it became the first computer my daughters ever took apart themselves.

Our girls love to use tools.  As you can imagine, there aren't that many occasions where they have to use tools, which doesn't stop them--"Dad, can you find me some wood, I need to put these nails in it."  For the most part we encourage it, despite the fact that things can get broken.  In order to do this right, you have to be trying to break something.

I put the old 486 on a workbench, and called them downstairs.  I explained that I wanted the hard drive removed, and that they could keep anything they found that they wanted.  I also explained that I wanted everything in the computer removed, and they could use any method they thought appropriate and any tool they thought they needed.  Two little faces stared back at me in pure joy and wonder.  "Dad, we're going to need a lot of tools for this."

I remember the first time I took a computer apart with my dad.  We had a Commodore 64, and were constantly having to take the floppy drive in for service, as the read/write heads came out of alignment quite often.  My dad got sick of driving to the store and waiting so long, and decided to learn to do it himself.  The moment he took the cover off of it, and I saw the motor, circuit boards, and wires, I was hooked for life.  I had no idea what he was doing (I'm pretty sure he didn't either), and that taught me something I've never forgotten: computers are meant to be ripped apart and explored.

Back on the workbench my eldest is struggling to figure out how to get the case off.  "Dad, what is this thing?"  I explain that it's a computer, realizing she's never seen a computer like this, that all the computers she's seen are either laptops or combo monitor+computer like our iMac.  "This isn't a computer."  The younger one agrees, "Dad, are you sure this is a computer?"  I've just aged another five years.

They suspend their disbelief long enough to get the screws out of the case and I show them how to pull it off, revealing the motherboard, ribbon cables, power cables, etc.  "Dad, this is a computer!"  Now I step back and let them think.  They quickly realize how to get ribbon cables off, and strip them all out.  Next my youngest spots a jumper and goes to work with the needle nose pliers.  It's not long before the power supply is out and all the wires removed (they learned to use wire cutters somewhere in there), LEDs are laying on the bench, and the motherboard is dangling by one screw.  Getting the CPU out took some trial and error, but the BIOS and RAM came out easily.  "Dad, is this a fan on the CPU?  Can I have it, I need a fan in my room."

As is to be expected, the one piece I needed was last on the list.  The hard drive seemed pretty boring after all the other amazing things that they found.  While they never did find a good use for the adjustable wrench (they tried it many, many times), they did manage to get a dozen other tools in play, and won some new treasures for their collections.  Suffice it to say that this computer won't be getting reassembled.  The truth is, it's worth more as an anatomy lab cadaver than as a piece of technology.  It's furnished me, and now my girls, with as many good memories as any computer could, and for that I'm thankful.

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