What's Inside Your Computer? These 6th-Graders Can Tell you

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 9 years old.

A 6th-grade student's rendering of what's inside the computer.
By Sheena Vaidyanathan

Have you ever looked inside a laptop? Have you ever held a CPU or studied the components on a computer motherboard? Though we use computers everyday, many of us know little about the fascinating world inside.

In the spirit of tech innovation that's defined Silicon Valley, every sixth grader in the Los Altos School District will be able to describe what goes on inside a computer. Students spend several classes studying a computer motherboard, drawing it in their notebooks and creating a 3D model of the computer on the computer. This hardware lesson is part of a required weekly class in a program that teaches science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with a focus on creativity, collaboration and computer science.

Along with computer hardware, students learn the art of drawing from observation; the ability to simplify what is complex. Students use their pencil drawings to create a 3D model on the computer using Google SketchUp, a free application. Using the tool is not exactly new to these students -- they used it to create 3D models of houses in a digital design class in the fifth grade.

Students are encouraged to use their own interpretation and creativity in designing the 3D model. They don't have to make it look exactly like the original, and can create their own work style. Some quickly make blocks and label them; others go back several times to the physical motherboard in the classroom to re-check the drawing and count out the exact number of components and relative sizes. The completed models are colored, labeled and then exported to a 2D image so they can be added to the student's Google site as part of their e-Portfolio for the class. (Check out their samples here.)

Besides this computer hardware lesson, students learn vector graphics, binary numbers, computer programming, and how to post onto their Google sites. They work in teams to create video games using Scratch, a programming language from MIT.


But these students are not just learning about technology; they're learning computational thinking skills, a problem-solving process that includes the ability to formulate problems so a computer can solve them. Some consider computational thinking one of the key skills in the digital age.

This class, along with the fifth-grade computer programming class, the implementation of the Khan Academy and collaborative online homework, is part of the school district's aim to teach students to go beyond being consumers of technology, but to become creators using technology. Having learned how computers work on the inside, and how to program the computer, the goal is to get students to use the computer as a tool to express their creativity.

Sheena Vaidyanathan teaches 3D design and computer programming to students in the Los Altos School District in California.