Tonawanda News

December 1, 2013

Niagara-Wheatfield teacher 'geeks out' to refurbish district's cranky computers

By Timothy Chipp
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — WHEATFIELD — Edward Town Middle School had a problem.

The district purchased several computers to help it meet its one-to-one computing initiative four years ago. And as anyone who owns a computer can attest to, a four-year-old machine can get slow and cause more problems than they solve.

In a 40-minute class setting, having a computer require about five minutes to turn on and load its necessary programs can be extremely detrimental to learning.

So John Mikulski, an English Language Arts teacher – and self-professed technology geek – at the school developed a solution that involved keeping the computers around, alive and the meant the district didn’t need to replace the old, dilapidated machines.

“We have these devices now that are no longer serviceable that are out of warranted, so there’s not a lot we could do with them,” Mikulski said. “We still have a great need for accessibility to technology at the middle school. So with permission ... I was given the opportunity to take some of these computers that were seen as obsolete or no longer serviceable and have my way with them, play with them a little bit.”

He dug right in and immediately saw some favorable results. Off the bat, he uninstalled the operating system of the computers, which was out of date. In its place, he installed an open source base program from Linux, which meant it is completely free to use, unlike Microsoft’s or Apple’s programs.

The Linux logo is a penguin, which inspired Mikulski to name his project The Penguin Lab.

Not only is the program free to use, Mikulski said, the open source aspect allows the programs to be completely customizable. Any setting is flexible in these not-so-new machines almost considered expendable or inoperable before he got going.

With new operating systems, he then took to making sure they acted more like cloud computers, rather than requiring them to log in to the school’s network any time they turned on. After all, he said, that connection time was a large chunk of what cause a five-minute boot-up for the old machines.

“That’s becoming the standard now,” he said of cloud computing. “When you start to leverage cloud computing, students can access their files from anywhere, which means their own devices, they can access them at home. It really just adds to the capabilities of technology.

“And not only can you set security features, you can set what kind of access the (students) have. We can also include things that are useful for our students specifically,” like links to specific websites, online textbooks and even their own grades through the district’s portal.

Much of the work was Mikulski’s doing, though he did have some help. He said he set out from the beginning to not just get these decrepit computers working again, but also to make sure the students knew they could do it themselves. So he recruited some of his trusted charges to assist.

“After making what I thought was my perfect Penguin netbook, I gave it to some of my more tech-savy students and said, ‘see if you can break this, see if you can make this no longer work’” he said. “That allowed me to see what they could do well, what they couldn’t do well with it and what kinds of security holes (they found).”

From this “perfect netbook,” Mikulski was able to use a process called cloning to make exact duplicates of his creation throughout all of the rest of the computers. He made 34 copies for a working set of netbooks soon to be available for teachers and students to use.

How they’ll become accessible to the students, though, is the second part of Mikulski’s vision. He said he’s getting ready to open up the Penguin Lab and Tutoring Center, which is exactly what it sounds like. The computers, he said, would be available for sign-out by teachers, but the room would also be available for students to receive tutoring from their older Falcon district mates in a special setting.

He said he’s excited to get this part of the program up and running soon.

“We have a room in our building currently used as storage,” he said. “It’s filled with boxes. We’ll be taking this set of laptops and putting them in there, creating a lab that’s not just accessible for teachers to sign out, but there will be opportunities for high school students to come over and tutor, whether in a small group or one-on-one, the middle school students.”

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.