January, 2012
Looking inside a computer – a lesson in hardware, 3D design and more

Have you ever taken apart a Mac laptop?  Apple laptops are not designed to disassemble easily; it takes work. With the help of my teenage son, I split open an old broken Mac laptop and took it into my class. I teach Computer Science to all 6th graders in a California public school district, the Los Altos School District in the San Francisco bay area.

Computer Science? In sixth grade?  In a public school district?  Yes, this comes as a surprise to anyone who asks me what I do. The Los Altos school district has fully embraced technology in the classroom – online math with the Khan academy, reading using iPads in lower grades, collaborative homework assignments using Google docs and much more.

And for the last 3 years, the Los Altos school district is also teaching its students to go beyond just being consumers of technology; become creators with technology.  An important step in that process is to learn about technology, what is inside a computer and how can you program a computer to create anything you want - simple computer science concepts.

When I showed the 6th graders that my pretty white Mac laptop was just an empty plastic shell, they were definitely listening. “The  'computer insides' are in this Ziploc bag and we are going to study them”.  I pulled out the various parts from my bag, explaining concepts like motherboard, RAM, CPU, and hard disk.

The students were fascinated by the motherboard, it complexity and its beauty. Maybe due to my focus on art in many of my technology projects in the past, they were looking and discussing the pattern of the lines and the colors and shapes of the components. There were a lot of excited comments and questions -  "The motherboard looks like a city.", This CPU could be Walmart, and this chip here is the school and these lines are the roads....  "., "What does this chip do?". Besides the Mac laptop motherboard, I also brought into the classroom some old PC motherboards as well as a few extra components like hard drives and a broken CPU. I explained to them that they could go shopping for parts to make a computer themselves. “The next time you go to Frys, ask for the aisle for motherboards.”

Once the students understood a little about computer hardware, they spent time examining and drawing the motherboard in their notebooks.  Along with learning computer hardware, these students were learning the art of drawing from observation, and the ability to simplify something that is complex. Students were told they had to draw the components discussed in the class. They could choose to ignore or add any of the rest of the information.

In the next lesson, students used their pencil drawings to create a 3D model on the computer using Google SketchUp. Google SketchUp is a 3D modeling tool and can be used effectively for many school projects. It is available both in a free and a paid version at http://sketchup.google.com/  The students had used Google SketchUp to design houses in my Digital Design class in 5th grade and  using it to convert 2D shapes into a 3D component was relatively easy.

Students were encouraged to use their own interpretation and creativity in creating the 3D model; they did not have to make it look exactly like the original. "Can it be any color we want?" was a popular question, and many wanted the 3D model to have colors they liked. Students decided on their own way of doing the project. Some quickly made the blocks and labeled them, others went back several times to the physical motherboard in the classroom to re-check their drawing and counted out the exact number of components and relative sizes. The completed models were labeled and then exported from SketchUp to a 2D image and then added to the student's Google site as part of their e-Portfolio for the class. Samples of the projects are at


After the hardware class, students came up and talked about broken computers at home that they hoped to take apart.  Few students brought in motherboards from other devices - a broken Xbox and a smart phone for example. These students were now seeing something that they had never noticed before. ­­­­­

We spend a lot of time working with computers; admiring the sleek lines and shiny finishes and of course the snappy applications and pretty graphics. We do not see the fascinating world inside. These students were given a chance to appreciate what lies underneath the hood.; maybe some of them will be part of Silicon Valley’s history of innovative hardware designers.