The New York Times The New York Times Technology December 19, 2002  

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Mississippi Students Build Their Own PC's


JACKSON, Miss. -- NOT long ago, TiAndrea Beasley would no sooner have plunged her hands into the electronic guts of a personal computer than she would have stuck her head under a car's hood to change the spark plugs. But that was before TiAndrea, a 17-year-old high school senior, enrolled in a computer engineering technology class at her school in Port Gibson, Miss., a small rural town about 50 miles southwest of Jackson.


Now TiAndrea, a B-plus student who plans to study business and accounting after she graduates next year, can install the operating system on any computer she builds in less than a half-hour.

"You know it's a man's thing, but women are doing it," she said as her computer beeped in the background. Then, grinning half in jest toward her computer construction partner, Sarah Reynolds, another 17-year-old senior, she added, "Building computers is easy."

TiAndrea and Sarah were among about a dozen students busy in the school's computer instruction classroom, which for at least three hours a day, Monday through Friday, has of late been a homespun computer assembly plant. And while every eye and hand in the room appeared sure with microprocessors and motherboards, all the students, including the boys, confessed that before taking the course they had never imagined themselves building computers with less sweat than it takes to build a fire.

Add another 39 senior high schools across the state that are similarly training students to build computers, and the scope of an unparalleled statewide plan begins to emerge. TiAndrea and Sarah said they couldn't be more proud to be a part of the mission: building about 6,000 computers so that every Mississippi classroom will have an online computer by the end of 2002.

"It is a joyful thing," said Lee A. Howard, 52, the instructor of the Port Gibson computer class and a former shop teacher, as he watched his students cranking out computers so that others could use them. "I was going to retire before this came around. This really rejuvenated me."

The statewide effort had its climax on Dec. 11, when 125 Mississippi high school students, some of whom had ridden for hours from tiny towns in minibuses, arrived in Jackson for what organizers called a Blitz Build: a single day in which scores of computers are built from scratch at a single location. The day's labors at Jackson State University produced the last 275 computers needed to fulfill the state's classroom needs.

Among those who gathered to mark the occasion was Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who shortly after his election two years ago set a goal of having an Internet-connected computer in every public-school classroom in the state by the end of 2002. That accomplishment would be a first for any state, according to the National Governors Association in Washington - and an uncommon distinction for Mississippi, whose public education system has for years ranked near or at the bottom in most national assessments.

Wiring of all 30,000 classrooms for the Internet should be complete by the governor's deadline, educators said. The larger hurdle at the outset was obtaining computers for the 6,000 classrooms that still lacked them. Officials said the state could not afford to buy that many through conventional means.

Through a combination of luck, timing and the determination of a few technology activists, Governor Musgrove became acquainted with ExplorNet, a nonprofit educational organization based in North Carolina that trains teachers to instruct students in building personal computers. In May, Governor Musgrove enlisted ExplorNet as a major component of his Computers in the Classroom initiative.

With the help of a $4.4 million grant administered by the Mississippi Development Authority that was used mostly to buy components, teams of students began building computers in July, with many working through the summer for $8 an hour.

The students spent the first nine weeks of the course studying computer terminology, how computers function and how best to work with them, said Andrew L. Smith, director of ExplorNet in Mississippi. Each student was given a basic tool kit, but a standard screwdriver is what most of them used. Much of the work involved correctly connecting and inserting 10 major components, including the main circuit board, into a computer case.

The kits, which include fully assembled 15-inch monitors, cost the organizers $685 a piece, roughly half what the state was paying its vendors, Mr. Smith said. Each computer has a 1,000-megahertz microprocessor, a 40-gigabyte hard drive, a high-speed CD-ROM drive and a network card, and uses the Microsoft Windows 98 operating system.

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Barbara Gauntt/The Clarion-Ledger
BLITZ Shawn Harris, left, Michael Clark and other Mississippi high school students building computers at Jackson State University.

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Photographs by James Edward Bates for The New York Times
HANDS ON - Tawane Burks and Trenton Johnson, above, and Danielle Torrain and Toya Jackson, below, were among 125 high school students from across Mississippi who traveled to Jackson State University on Dec. 11 to assemble computers. They acquired their skills as part of a state initiative to put a computer in every classroom.

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