Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Improvisation

I teach a computer skills class two nights a week. The class is half lecture and half hands-on lab work. Before walking into the lab tonight, I was informed by the lab supervisor that eight of the twenty-three machines I needed for class were not working. Okay, not a problem. I figured that I could divide the class into groups and we'd work together to fix the broken computers. It turned out, however, that admin rights to the computer were locked out. Only the lab supervisor could make the necessary changes to fix the computers.

At this point, some fifteen minutes into a two hour class, I could have either dismissed everyone, turned the lab class into a lecture on something abstract like the Higgs Boson or the Wow! Signal, or I could improvise a lab. It was then that I had a flash of brilliance. I told my students to each disconnect a computer from a lab stand and bring it to their desks. "We're going to dissect these beasts" I declared.

I demonstrated how to pop open the chassis of the Dell models we were using and urged my students to follow my example. Sounds of grinding metal gave way to gasps of awe. It was as if each one of them had pulled Excalibur from its stone. We spent the next 45 minutes discussing the various different components of the computer. At one point, I pulled the processor out of its seating below the elaborate cooling system and, in my best Igor voice, I exclaimed "The brain! I have a brain for my master!". The class guffawed at my inanity.

We discussed the issues related with computer cooling and how, as processors become more powerful, heat dissipation becomes more of a challenge. When asked to come up with alternative methods of cooling, one student suggested a water-based cooling system. I liked this idea and thought that we could perhaps drain off the resulting hot water from the system and make coffee from it.

At the end of class, everything was closed up and put back in its place as if nothing had happened. A small part of me was a little worried that we would somehow end up with a few more non-working computers as a result of this exercise. Thankfully, everything booted up normally. As my students left class, I heard one of more disinterested students say to a classmate "Now, THAT was cool".

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