By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — To most of us, the computer is a modern invention; people born before 1970 really had little exposure to the device. Today’s kids are growing up with desk tops, lap tops, tablets and devices including iPhones, Android phones, TVs and MP3 music players, both at home and in school. Ads for computers appear on TV, are printed in newspapers, magazines, and online; we all know where to buy one. But how many of us have built a computer from scratch?
A group of students at St. Patrick School in Kansas City can say yes, they have built a computer, from the base up. Eighteen student members of the iGeneration Tech Club, under the guidance and tutelage of technology teacher/advisor R. J. Keitchen, recently completed building six computers that will be used in classrooms around the school. And it wasn’t the first time St. Patrick’s students had built or rebuilt computers.
The club, founded in 2008, was the brainchild of brothers Rowan (St. Patrick’s Class of 2010) and Aiden Decker (2012), Kietchen’s sons. They were interested in learning how a computer was built so that they could work on them. Kietchen, who at the time had almost 20 years of experience in the field of technology, was teaching at St. Patrick’s and was instrumental in the establishment of the club. Since then, about 100 students have spent a semester learning the ins and outs of computers and a semester rebuilding or building them from scratch. All the computers are in use either at St. Patrick’s or elsewhere in the Diocese.
In 2010, the club rebuilt and refurbished more than 30 donated computers, and installed 10 of the rebuilt wireless systems at Holy Cross School. In 2007, roof leaks during a torrential rain storm had wiped out 26 of the northeast Kansas City’s school’s wireless computers.
The 2013-2014 iGeneration Tech Club, which meets twice weekly, spent the first semester learning about the innards of and how a computer works. The kids could describe a motherboard, how it works, and where it fits into the assembly; terms including CPU (processors), coolers and, of course motherboards, sprinkled their conversations like salt and pepper.
Fourth graders Kintzli Wagner, Charlie Moloney, Hannah Solomon, River Torres-Bowlin, Clarence Clark, Mitchell Drumright, Crystal Comer and Viet Nguyen; 5th grader Allyson Bundy; 6th graders Chance Wagner, Joseph Mamja, Jimmy Moloney, Brook Torres-Bowlin, Cheyenne Neely, Michael Koll, Trang Nguyen and James Drumright; and 8th grader Kyle Hayden comprise this school year’s club membership.
After Christmas break, Kietchen said, members practiced taking a computer apart and reassembling it. Then it was time to build one, er six, from scratch. In groups of two or three, with Kietchen’s oversight, instructions and assistance, over the next three months the kids brought sundry electronic supplies, electrical wiring, processors, coolers and motherboards to life as working computer systems.
Early March saw most of the machines become recognizable as, well something electronic. Wires snaked in and out and around tubes and pieces that resembled three dimensional architectural drawings of cities. The kids were hard at work plugging in wires, processors and motherboards and installing memory. Occasionally a call would come from the depths of a computer’s housing as a student successfully plugged in a component: “Mine twisted in real well!” From inside another housing, a plaintive “NOOOOOO,” as something went wrong. Kietchen to the rescue: “Just pop it open like a soda can!”
The wail changed to a triumphant “YES!”
A look around the Technology classroom is informative. In addition to the computer systems on tables in the center and against three walls of the room, shelves display computers, parts and software boxes. One section is devoted to the “Evolution of the Motherboard,” showing how, as time went by, the number of tiny parts and modules increased dramatically. In the early days, a computer consisted of multiple printed circuit boards in a card-cage case; components were plugged into sockets. Today, a mother board consists of sockets or slots in which microprocessors and memory can be installed; interfaces that transfer data between components; storage memory; a clock signal generator which produces the signal to synchronize various components and power connectors. Most include connectors and logic to support a mouse and keyboard. And, given the high speed of the modern computer system, motherboards include heat sinks (devices that dissipate heat) and fan mounts to help dispel excess heat.
Across the room sits a working 1982 Commodore 64 Home Computer. An attached card states that the Commodore 64 originally retailed for $595.
By the end of April, the almost completed systems were housed in black, black and red, windowed white or clear cases. Tech Club members were busy installing the last software and updates, a hurry up and wait process as the installations often took up most of the club time while the kids played computer games or listened to music.
Kietchen commented to the club that several of the computers went into Sleep Mode as they weren’t being used. “Windows started Sleep Mode in 1995, and it never worked right, until 20 years later!” He then suggested the kids “wake them up!”
Allyson Bundy, proudly the club’s sole fifth grader, said she joined because her “dad is very electronically oriented and built his own computer. I want to build my own, too.” She added that “putting in motherboards is very interesting. Sometimes we got it right and sometimes wrong.”
What happened when it was put in wrong?
“Smoke and sparks. Very interesting!” she said with a rueful laugh.
Eighth grader Kyle Hayden is a newcomer to the club; “this semester is my first shot at it. I really like to possess knowledge and computers were something I didn’t know much about.” He could turn a computer on and use it to study or play games, he said, but how one worked and was put together, was a different story.
Since joining the iGeneration Tech Club, “I’ve learned that building a computer is a matter of common sense,” Kyle said. “For example, a motherboard doesn’t need two power connections, just one. More than one might result in, yeah, like Allyson said, smoke and sparks!”
Brook Torres-Bowlin, sixth grade, said her dad also built his own computer. “It got me curious and I always wanted to learn how he did it.”
Brook said class materials were provided by the faculty advisor, R.J. Kietchen. “You can order them online,” she said, “but it’s not always a good idea. You should go to an Apple Store or a Microsoft Center. You can trust them that the parts you’re getting are the right ones.”
Kietchen had told the club members that he would finish whatever they still needed to do since the computers had to be completed that evening. Six of the systems in the room would be disconnected and repurposed for use elsewhere in the school. The new computers would take their place. The tech classroom was on the fast track to boasting all new computers in the near future, built by St. Patrick School students.
Brook, Kyle and Allyson plan to continue learning about computers over the summer. Brook plans to go to a tech summer camp. Allyson writes down everything she has learned this year and plans to memorize it while on summer break. Kyle, who is St. Pius X High School-bound, intends to keep reading and learning during the summer and beyond.
Oh and by the way, computers do go back a long way. The first known written reference to a “computer,” was found in A Yong Mans Gleanings, by English writer Richard Braithwait in 1613, and concerned a “human computer,” who computed mathematical calculations.
In 1892, the New York Times published an ad from the Civil Service Commission, for “A computer wanted … examination will include the subjects of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and astronomy.”
Charles Babbage, an English mechanical engineer, is credited with formulating the concept of a programmable computer around 1833. The project was dropped when the British government ceased funding it.
The first freely programmable computer appeared in 1936. From then until about 1964, computers used punch cards to store data. In World War II, mechanical analog computers were developed for use in specialized military applications. The first electronic digital computers appeared during the late 1940s, were the size of a large room and used as much power as several hundred modern PCs. The first commercial computer appeared in 1951, and picked the winners in the presidential election.
The first consumer computers were marketed in 1974-75. Word processors appeared around 1979; the early 1980s brought words like PC and DOS into everyday language.
Computers now are smaller; lighter, equipped with high speed everything. Members of the St. Patrick School iGeneration Tech Club will keep up with the latest innovations and updates. And the rest, as they say, is history.