IT Operations

Join the club: Sixth graders learn to fix laptops

A Massachusetts middle school had a lot of broken laptops. An IT Club of sixth and seventh graders aims to bring the number down.
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Alex Castro

· 5 min read

The Abby Kelley Foster (AKF) Charter Middle School has an IT team that sits in classrooms weekly, replacing screens, keyboards, and other odd parts that have been pulled out, dropped down, and yanked off during the course of a young student’s day. The IT fixers here lack the certifications and degrees often common for tech pros found in an educational setting.

That’s because they’re 12 years old.

In late 2023, as the Worcester, Massachusetts, middle school faced a growing number of broken Chromebooks, the school’s IT director and principal came up with an afterschool activity: IT Club. The effort has a two-fold impact: the school gets fixed-up laptops and a new class of young peers who know how to treat technology and lead by example.

Another Chromebook, please! The school this year has 488 fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh graders. According to the school’s “1:1” policy, that means 488 Chromebooks—one for each student. Or more, once they start breaking.

“We went through so many Chromebooks last year. And it got to the point where it was just like, ‘How do we continue to replace these?’” Shelly-Anne Hinds, middle school principal at AKF, told IT Brew.

Gabriel Beltran, director of IT at AKF, said he thinks he and his IT department (a team of five at the moment) last year saw between 15 to 20 broken laptops monthly, and a heavy percentage came from the middle school. Some common problems found at the help desk: busted hinges leading to loose top covers, cracked screens, inoperative headphone jacks, the occasional keyboard missing the letter G.

A new computer class. In 2023, Beltran and Hinds came together to start the IT Club—a way to fix the Chromebooks and show kids the effort involved in fixing them. Beltran also wanted instruction that went beyond the basics of a standard computer course.

“There’s a difference between having just a computer class, which is your basic, ‘This is how you open a Word document. This is how you type. This is the internet,’ and having a computer science curriculum in the middle school,” Beltran said.

The main task during the IT club’s early sessions, Beltran said: Replace the keyboard. In the new year, the team is teaching other troubleshooting scenarios: what to do if the computer is not charging, or the cursor is not moving, for example.

IT Club students replace parts in a laptop computer.

IT Club students replace parts in a laptop computer. Nardella Thomas

IT specialists on staff Caio Gravina and Marcus Valentin handle inventory and Chromebooks support for students and teachers across AKF’s three schools. On Thursdays, they instruct the students on a variety of hands-on help-desk scenarios.

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“Our goal is not to make it too complex for the student,” Gravina said. “We’re trying to make them at least able to identify a problem and see how they’re able to resolve it from there. And we’re just going to be there in the background trying to mentor them as well.”

Can I join your club? When IT Brew visited the Club on April 11, Gravina and Valentin had set the tables with Acer and HP devices, each featuring problems for the kids to find and solve with basic tools and a little dexterity.

On this day, Gravina and Valentin guided six students through the replacements of screens, cameras, keyboards, and USB cards.

Many of the IT Club leads have experience tinkering with early computers, learning largely through their own youthful determination. Beltran recalls early lessons from watching over a repairman’s shoulders as he fixed the family computer. Valentin remembers replacing a power supply as a young IT enthusiast (“even though it didn’t fit the chassis properly,” he said.)

The benefits of a gathering like IT Club go beyond repaired Chromebooks. Middle-schoolers have a chance to be problem solvers.

“That student probably has a chance to fix something that applies to their whole family,” Gravina said.

Valentin added that the problem-solving skills extend to a variety of technologies outside the school. Maybe a refrigerator stops working, Valentin suggested; the students can think critically about the kitchen appliances or electronics in a different way.

“You have to really think about what there is to a system in order to really troubleshoot it,” Valentin said.

Beltran said he sees about 10 to 15 broken devices per month these days. Still a little too high for his taste, he said, but he believes the IT Club's young tech exemplars will help to lower the number of broken Chromebooks

“If the kids see the work, and how hard it is to maintain these computers and to fix them, then maybe they can be like ambassadors,” Beltran told IT Brew.

Cracked Chromebooks at Abby Kelley Foster will likely never reach zero, but Beltran hopes that, with an effort like IT Club, the numbers inch closer and closer to 1:1: One student, one fully functional laptop.

Do you work in IT or have information about your IT department you want to share? Email [email protected].

Top insights for IT pros

From cybersecurity and big data to cloud computing, IT Brew covers the latest trends shaping business tech in our 4x weekly newsletter, virtual events with industry experts, and digital guides.