History | Last updated by Taylor Hales, 7 years ago

Orientation script

An outline to use when working with volunteers.


It's useful to have a game plan. Here's a quick overview of what you're going to do in running orientation.

  1. An overview of what Freegeek Chicago does as an organization. Gather people together and talk about how we work, what volunteers do, and a mention a bit about governance.
  1. The walking tour. Walk volunteers around, taking them through all 4 of the volunteer program "stations," and briefly describe what their work will consist of at each of those stations. Show them the back areas and other parts of the space not used in the regular earn-a-computer program.
  1. Hardware Orientation. Open a desktop system and systematically go through each of the parts, describing their function in the computer system. Your goal is to teach volunteers how to visually identify each part, how they are properly physically connected, and what each does. Super mega bonus points if they understand how the mechanisms work.
  1. Start volunteers on Teardown. Explain the Teardown process and get them started getting dusty!

Orientation Part 1: Our Space, Our Organization, and the Earn-a-Computer Program

First, before gathering up volunteers, you may want to que up part of the Frontline special that you think is especially potent in demonstrating the environmental problems associated with improper e-waste disposal. I've put a link in the bookmark toolbar in firefox at the admin station. There are also links to some of the basel action network's gallery photos that are poignant.

Start with a small icebreaker, perhaps ask how people heard about us. Don't be too pushy about this, as some have heard from welfare officers, social welfare agencies, etc., and may view this as sensitive info. I always find it interesting to hear that new organizations seem to have us on their radar. I do a little name remembrance exercise for myself. Volunteers will respond better to FGC if we remember each other, if they're greeted by name when they come down the scary stairs.

1. What Freegeek Does, and What the Earn-a-Box Volunteer Does

We take in old computers for recycling and reuse. Most of the hardware we receive is no longer desirable to people or organizations for whatever reason-- most commonly, age, people think they're broken (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't), or the materials are occupying space that someone or some organization needs. We offer donors the assurance that materials will be treated with the utmost environmental care and responsibility. This is important for a couple reasons. Computers and other electronics are made with toxic materials (ex: CRTs have lead, PCBs are etched with toxic chemicals). If they are disposed of curbside, they can go into a landfill in the U.S., and rainwater may wash over them, causing toxic chems to enter the ground and potentially get into the watertable. Waste companies have also taken to amassing electronic materials and selling them to facilities in the developing world, where there is little regulation over recycling operations. People scavenge a living desperately from scrapping metals and other materials they can resell from our e-waste, often with grave consequences to their own health, and that of their environment.

Ex: In Guizhou, at a recycling facility that employs literally hundreds of thousands of migrant e-waste recycling workers, people have taken to creating acid baths to burn the gold off of circuit boards. They inhale toxic gas in the process, and often dump the used acid in the nearby river.

Perhaps show part of the frontline video here, or an image from the BAN photo gallery.

So one of the most important things that Freegeek Chicago does is prevents e-waste from being diverted to the developing world. Any materials we take in are kept inside the U.S. (with the small exception of the vacuum tubes from CRT monitors that SSI resells to a facility in Asia, the only one in the world that reuses the tubes).

As volunteers, you'll help us process the computers. We'll sort out what we think could be used to rebuild a personal computer that we could sell or that a volunteer could rebuild to take home after completing his/ her hours. Computers that can't be reused whole you'll scrap for parts and separate the materials into more raw recyclable materials. Stuff that can be reused, you'll test, rebuild, and setup with an operating system and a bunch of software we like.

Mention how we are governed. This is an area where we stand out from other non-profits and especially other tech-based non-profits, and I think it's good to plant the seed in every volunteer's mind of their being eligible to help us make decisions and shape the organizational direction.

We are a collectively governed organization. There are two decision making bodies-- the Community Council and the Staff-Board. The Staff Board are people who have been around for a while, who meet pretty rigorous participation requirements, and who thus get a voice in the higher-level decisions regarding finances, space, donations, etc. The staff-board is also responsible for facilitating intake and sale of computers and bookkeeping. The Community Council deliberates and votes on program-related issues. They can present any proposal to the staff for approval, and they have final approval over staff nominations. It is composed of volunteers who have 40 hours of service for us, and keep up a designated level of participation at meetings and during program hours.

2. The Guided Tour

A. Where to put recycling

Walk volunteers into the recycling area. I first point out the plastic recycling boxes. Inevitably, there will be some things in or on the plastic recycling boxes that isn't just plastic. It has metal or circuit boards. Explain gently to volunteers that a keyboard may look like just plastic, but inside, there is metal shielding, a circuit board, and there's wire that comes out of the keyboard. The metal and circuit board should've been separated. The wire could've been cut off and stripped for resale, to offset some of our recycling costs. Not doing this also causes more work down the road-- now someone has to go back through the box and re-sort it, properly separating metal, plastic, circuit board.

Next I show volunteers the circuit board recycling boxes. Take a moment to make sure that all volunteers know what a circuit board is so that they can properly separate circuit boards into the right box for recycling-- they're typically green (though not always) and have electrical components soldered onto them.

Point out the remaining recycling areas: drives, wire, and scrap metal.

B. Tear Down

Walk volunteers to the Tear Down area

Tear Down is what you'll do after finishing orientation today. You'll take computers that we haven't started processing, and we'll first determine if they can be reused, or if most of the central components will need to be recycled.

Point out the teardown/ build shelves

The metal shelves behind the teardown work area and build are how we keep track of the computers that we are currently processing. When you're done tearing down a computer that's going to be rebuilt, you'll put it on the "barebones" shelf. Volunteers who are doing their build day will take a torn down computer from those racks and rebuild it. There is also space on those shelves for empty cases (just left of the two barebones shelves). Sometimes, we can reuse an entire case if we are recycling a computer's central components. We urge ambitious builders or people versed in desktop assembly to build from an empty case.

C. Build

Walk volunteers to the Build area

On your second day volunteering, you'll be rebuilding computers. You'll take components that have been tested and put them into a system that's been torn down. Most of the parts you'll need to rebuild are in the immediate vicinity of the build area.

Briefly show volunteers the rack of optical drives, the memory and hard drive bins, the power supply shelves (NOW SORTED!), processor shelves, motherboard boxes, and IDE cable bins.

Some parts, namely bigger capacity and newer type RAM sticks and big hard disks and fancy video cards, we keep in the staff room to prevent people from hording parts. If you need any of this stuff, ask the build coordinator and he/ she will grab whatever you need from the back.

Show volunteers the tool bins

Ask if volunteers know the difference between flat head and phillips screwdrivers. Have a volunteer explain it. Ask if anyone knows the difference between #2 and #1 phillips, and have someone explain the difference and how each might be useful in a given circumstance. Ask volunteers to separate tools into their appropriate bins when they are putting them away, and ask volunteers to take no more tools than they need and to share whenever possible.

Ziplocs are also in the bins just above the tools. We use ziplocs to contain parts of computer cases used to attach drives or to otherwise furnish a complete case. More on this when we start tear down.

A couple more notes on the build process:

  1. There are no "build reservations."

We understand that once you have started building a computer, you may have a reasonable desire to finish building that computer. But you cannot put a note on a computer that it is your build project, or otherwise guard a computer for yourself to build. Many computers have sat on the racks for months on end thusly. And many volunteers have been duly disappointed when a computer that they had "reserved" for themselves to finish rebuilding was taken up by another volunteer. When we call clean up, if you aren't finished with your build, you have to live with the fact that someone else may take that computer up and finish building it.

  1. Don't think about the computer you're going to take home until you're done, or nearly done, with your volunteer hours.

Many volunteers have their eye on a computer from the time they first do orientation. More likely than not, that computer will be built and taken by another volunteer or put up for sale, and the lovestruck volunteer who had their eye on it will be heartbroken. There will probably be another nice black case for you to take home when you've finished your hours, too. But don't worry about that until you're nearly done with your earn-a-box hours.

  1. Do not horde parts.

Just don't do it. All volunteers deserve to have equal access to parts when they start building.

D. Component Testing

Walk volunteers to the test area

Your third day volunteering, you'll be testing components. When you test a part, you generally are swapping it into a known good setup, and running a program that diagnoses the part you need tested. Some tests last a few minutes, some a number of hours.

Point out the 12 numbered memory and hard drive testing stations

The parts that we test the most of are memory and hard drives. This is our testing bed for those two parts. Each of these shelved with a numbered power supply holds an entire computer system that doesn't have a case, so that we can easily swap in the part to be tested in and out. They're all connected to that gray console with the two red numbers on it, which acts like a kind of "remote control" with which we can monitor the testing progress on all 12 systems on one monitor, flipping through them as if they were channels on a single TV screen. We can also control all of those systems with one keyboard with that same console.

Hard drives are one thing that it's extremely important that we test. The hard drive is the part of the computer that permanently stores all of your data, so when a computer is donated to us and has a hard drive in it, it still has all the old user's data on that drive. Our testing program is first and foremost a hard drive wiping program. So it erases all the old user's data so there's no chance that anyone can read their love letters, get their financial info, etc. down the road.

Point out the 4 video/ audio testing stations

We also have video and audio testing stations here. The video and sound card testing procedure is a little bit more specialized, so most volunteers end up only testing memory and hard drives, but we need sound and video cards tested, so if you're willing, we will train you on these testing stations.

E. OS Install

Walk volunteers over to the OS Install area.

The OS install area has kinda spilled over into whatever space is unoccupied on a given day.

Your final day you'll be working with software for the first time. You'll use software to test hardware components, but your interaction with that software is pretty minimal. That's an important distinction in the world of computers: hardware is stuff that's tangible, that has a physical aspect and does something physical in your computer system. Keyboards, monitors, hard drives, and cases even are hardware. Software is applications, data or code with which you can interact to do something with your hardware.

The first "layer" of software that all computers need to allow you to do something is the operating system. There are a couple that most people are familiar with: Apple OS (OS 9, X) and Microsoft Windows (2000, XP, 7, Server 2003). They handle file storage and manage applications, and do a lot more. They allow you to interact with your computer and determine how you can do that.

We install an operating system that is not Windows and not Apple OS. We install a free, and open source, and good operating system called Xubuntu. Xubuntu is a version of Linux, which has been around since the early 1990s, and its predecessors have been around since the 1960s. We've chosen this operating system for a number of reasons which we think it's important to explain.

  1. It's free. That allows us to give computers away to volunteers for free, and to sell computers for really cheap, at a rate that just barely allows us to break even once rent and recycling are paid for. If we wanted to put Windows on our computers, we'd have to apply to Microsoft for a Refurbishers License and tack on a $40 fee to all of our computers, and computers would then cost volunteers $40 to take home.
  1. It's Open Source, which means that the code is not privately owned. You can install the operating system without any legal liability, without having to obtain a license to do so, and you can change it and redistribute it without any legal liability. You can also see how it's written.
  1. It allows us to repurpose older computers. The version of Linux we've chosen is designed largely to use little system resources. In a word, it can run on less-than-brand-new computers. It can, in fact, run swimmingly on a computer that was modern in the late 1990s. That's fantastic for us, because we get a lot of old stuff. An operating system that doesn't need a lot of computing power allows us to reuse much that stuff, to endow it with a second life.
  1. Malicious Software is not much of an issue for Linux. Linux is designed in such a way that it is very difficult for a virus, worm, trojan to do serious damage to your system. There are also a tiny fraction of the number of viruses for Linux that there are for Windows. One article stated that while there are about 60,000 known Windows viruses, there are only about 40 for Linux.
  1. It's good. And it's not scary like you may think it is. Xubuntu has a very polished desktop with toolbars, easy access to an Internet browser and other software. Many people liken the look to Apple OS. If you spend a couple hours (if that) learning the file system, the software manager, and some other basics, we think you'll find that it's actually a really good operating system. For most people, the drawback is that you can't run software that's explicitly written for Windows or Apple OS (you can't go to the store and buy a bunch of cheap games and run them without a bunch of virtualization configuration).
  1. There is a ton of software for Linux. And all of it is free. You can browse the repos yourself, but for any task you would want your computer to do (browse the Internet, edit video, record audio, burn and rip cds and dvds, play games, edit spreadsheets or text documents) there are between a few and a few dozen good options for programs you can download and use for free.
  1. It's compatible with most of the software people need for school and work. After you've installed the OS itself, you'll install a suite of software that we've picked from the huge library of free and open source software available for Linux. The office suite can open and save (read and write) Microsoft Office files, so as long as you remember to manage your file types, you can bring your files back and forth to a computer that uses Windows software. You'll also install Flash and Javascript, so Internet applications will function the same as they would on a computer running Windows or Apple OS.

F. The Thrift Store

Walk volunteers to the Thrift Store area

The first room in the "back" area is our so-called Thrift Store. Once computers are completely finished and checked by staff, we bring them to this room and price them. When people come to Freegeek to buy a computer, we work with them to figure out what kind of spec they need and we'll sell them an appropriate computer. The computers we sell go for $40 to a couple hundred. $200 would buy you a pretty nice newer system with a dual-core processor, a gig or two of ram, and a big storage capacity.

If you are interested in something a little fancier than what we'd usually give to volunteers, you have an option. After your 24 hours, you can build us an additional desktop computer and then take a $50 credit towards whatever computer, laptop, or parts you'd like instead.

G. The Staff Room

Walk volunteers to the Staff Room

The Staff Room is where we work on laptops. It's also where we do our bookkeeping and store some of the nicer parts. Because of some recent thefts, we've enacted a pretty harsh policy that if you come back here without staff or supervolunteer accompaniment, you have to leave for the rest of the day. If it's near the end of the day, you have to take the next week off.

Many volunteers are curious about working on laptops, and about pricing and sales. We sell laptops quickly, often the day they're finished or the next. Prices range from $50 to a couple hundred. A nice laptop from the early- to mid-2000s will be priced at $125-175. Something very nice and newer will be around $200-250.

If you're interested in working on laptops, you can do that after you finish the earn-a-box program (after your 24 hours). It's not as fun and sexy as it sounds, though. Laptops are designed to be as constrained as is possible, and many of the parts that are modular on a desktop are all built onto the central motherboard, which is both hard to access and difficult and expensive to replace. And every laptop is designed differently. There is some discipline to working on desktops because things have become relatively standardized, so you can easily translate your understanding of how to build from one desktop computer to the next. Laptops are all (every one) designed differently, often with only the slightest similarity in design from model to model in a certain manufacturer.

Orientation Part 2: Hardware

Get a computer that needs to be torn down. Try to select one that has a generous amount of space. If there's a big group, you can take two and have a volunteer mimic your actions as you point out the parts and how they're connected.

A lot of people who haven't worked on computers or opened one up don't yet know that what's inside of the desktop case is your computer itself. Many think the CRT is the thing that does all of the processing of data, etc. But inside of the case there are a number of components (usually 5-10 discreet parts) that make up a modern computer system.

We're going to spend a half hour or so opening up a computer, systematically talking about all the parts and what they do, how to connect them to a computer system so that they'll function. This is really the only time where there's a long bit of "lecture" in the earn-a-computer program. In our program, at least, people seem to learn best by experience, with guidance but not instruction.

First, let's talk about basic safety rules.

Basic Safety When Working with Computers

  1. Do not ever disassemble CRT monitors. Do not ever disassemble power supplies. Do not ever disassemble systems that have integrated CRT monitors. All these are recycled whole, though staff may remove hard disks.
  1. You may encounter mildly toxic materials in working with computers: thermal paste, "capacitor juice," byproducts from metal oxidation, dust. None of these is toxic enough that you have to worry. They may cause a stomach ache. Always wash your hands before eating. If you've come into contact with some of the toxic stuff, wash them again.
  1. When working on hardware, always power the system completely off. If you can, first power the system off from the Operating System. Then power the system completely off by unplugging the power supply's power cable from the power supply or the wall outlet. If your power supply has a rocker switch, you can also flip it to the "off" position (the "O", not the "|").
  1. Be careful with any liquids. Try not to spill them inside a computer. Especially one that is powered on. It's a good idea to disconnect the monitor and power if off before restarting work on a computer, too.
  1. We will repeat this many times throughout hardware orientation, but be sure you are making your connections properly. Making incorrect connections can fry parts and put you at risk of electrical shock. To prevent this, look at the connection you are making, and make sure the male end matches the female end, and that the connector fits flush vertically and horizontally. If you feel resistance, stop and re-examine the connector to make sure it is the correct connection and that you are orienting the connectors correctly.
  1. There are rigid edges and metal pins sticking out on every computer you will ework on. You will probably cut your hand or finger at some point. Be careful with the momentum you are creating. If you are concerned about this, feel free to bring gloves, but we do not provide them to volunteers. Long nails are not very conducive to effective work.

The Case

The main function of the case is to make all of the discreet parts of your computer into one kinda big part. I.e. you can move the case without having to rebuild your computer. If the parts are a family (a single parent household, actually!), the case is that family's house. It also secures all the parts in place to prevent damage from movement.

Cases are all designed differently. Some you'll have to spend a while figuring out how to open. If you have difficulty, a staffperson or supervolunteer may be able to give you some guidance. Most desktop cases open in teh same way-- face the rear of the computer, with the keyboard and mouse and USB connectors facing you, and the side on your right will slide out towards you. Usually there are a couple screws holding the panel in place, sometimes there's a latch or some other mechanism. You may have to spend a few moments looking at it and exploring to figure out how it opens.

Another thing to note about the case is that it provides you with at least a power button, and often with a power light, a disk access light, and a reset button. Those parts connect to your motherboard (more on that in a second). Some manufacturers use their own specific (proprietary) connectors for those buttons and lights, so you have to be careful when you're building a computer from scratch that that front panel connector from your case matches the connector on your motherboard.

The Power Supply

The power supply distributes electricity to the components in your computer.

Point out the Power Supply

It looks like a gray box, and there's often a fan that you can see on the outside or inside of your computer.

On the outside of the computer case, a power cable runs from your wall outlet into your power supply. Inside your computer case, a bunch of colored cables (black, red, yellow, maybe white) run from your power supply to the parts that need electricity. If you follow where those cables go, you can see the parts that need to be connected to your power supply: the hard drive, optical drive, and motherboard. [And sometimes fans, processors and video cards.]

Remove the power cables from the drives

All the drives in your computer use the same connector. It has 4 "female" pin sockets that fit into the back of a drive. This is the first example of what is probably the most important thing to understand about building a computer-- all the connectors are designed so that you can only connect them with the proper orientation to the correct connector. If you look at the power supply drive connector, you'll see that it's roughly rectangular, but that two edges are angled so that it's not perfectly rectangular. That's a deliberate aspect of the design that prevents you from being able to make the connection upside down. If you feel like you have to put a good amount of force on the connector to make the connection, stop pushing, make sure you are aligning the connector flush, and make sure that it is not upside down. Do the same with any connection you make when building a computer.

All of your drives need power from your power supply in order to do their jobs. If a drive isn't recognized, if your CD drive's door doesn't open, this is the first thing to check-- make sure that you've installed the power cable correctly.

The other power connector you'll need to connect and disconnect is the connection to your motherboard, which is the big central circuit board in your computer. The connector that you'll see most often is a big white rectangle of pins (2 rows of 10 pins make the standard 20 pin motherboard connector). Again, if you look at the connector, you'll see that it's designed to prevent you from being able to make the connection incorrectly. There's a latch that clips over a little "tooth" on the motherboard's end of this connection. It sometimes takes a good bit of wiggling to break this connection once it's made.

The Hard Drive (and IDE Cables)

Grab a hard drive from your vicinity. Not one that has been at all demanufactured.

This is a hard drive. It looks like a boring little gray box, and on the rear you can see the power supply connection we just talked about. Right next to that connector, you'll see a bunch of gold pins sticking out towards you. Those pins connect to the other type of cable that you'll see in the computer you build for us, an IDE cable, which moves data. Each IDE cable can have three ends (some have two). One end goes to your motherboard, and the other two, the two that are closer to each other than to the third, go to your drives. You don't have to have all connectors connect to anything. But all drives must have a data connection with one of these cables. Most of our motherboards will have two IDE channels, each of which can have two drives connected with one of those cables, so you can have 4 hard drives or optical drives in whatever combination you wish. The IDE cable has a little ridge on the top side that fits into a little space on the top side of your drive, again, to prevent you from making the cable connection upside down. When you attach an IDE cable to a drive or to your motherboard, be sure you are aligning it flush left-to-right. It is pretty easy to bend the pins on a drive or on your motherboard connector by pushing on the cable when it's not aligned correctly.

The hard drive is what permanently stores your data. When you install Linux onto a computer in a couple weeks, you'll be installing it onto the hard drive. When you install a new program, it goes onto your hard drive. When you download a song from Lala or iTunes, it goes onto your hard drive. When you write up a resume, you ultimately save it to your hard drive. Any data that you can access after you've turned off your computer is being stored on your hard drive.

Grab the demo hard drive that has had it's top cover removed.

This is what the hard drive mechanism looks like. On most hard drives, there are between 1 and 3 metal platters that can accept magnetic charges. A motor inside the drive spins those disks fast (5,000- 10,000 times a minute) and a needle, like that on a phonograph, rotates in and out to read and write magnetic charges on that disk. All your data is a series of magnetic charges, either in one direction or another. The area that holds each magnetic charge is tiny, a few dozen or so nanometers on the now-big drives.

If you have some that seem to know all this, you can start to make side notes about binary-- here, note that there are only two states your data can exist in, one direction or another, which correspond in binary to a 0 or 1.

The Optical Drive

Point out your computers optical drive

Optical drives are CD and DVD readers and writers. They also store data. Often, though, you can only read off of the optical drive, or you can only write to it once. Writing is a slow process relative to that of writing to your hard drive, and storage is much more limited. But unlike the hard disk, the media (the disk) is removable.

Note that the optical drive has the same two cable connections as your hard disk-- the same IDE (data) connector, and the same power connector. Remember that both of these drives need both of those connections.

The optical drive uses laser light that's focused through a lens (hence the name "optical") and bounced off of the light-reflective disk you put into the drive.

For the more interested or advanced, go more in-depth: the disk is etched with a series of physically high and low points, and the laser light hits disk at a certain angle based on whether it hits a low or high point. A light receiver will mark a "0" or a "1" corresponding to whether it got hit by a beam of light in a certain amount of time, and your CD-ROM strings that binary data together. When you burn a disk, you heat certain areas of the disk to create high points from a disk that started off as all low points, or vice versa.

The Floppy Drive/ Zip Drive/ Jaz (boo!)

Floppy and Jaz and Zip drives use(d) magnetic storage mechanisms similar to that used in your hard drive, but the media that your data was written to was much more flimsy, as were the mechanics of the drive. There were many failures resulting in data loss. Reading and writing was also abysmally slow.

We don't install floppy drives into computers, because Flash memory sticks have taken over floppy territory. They offer storage that's thousands of times faster and thousands of times greater in volume, and is much much more secure against data loss.


Grab a stick o' RAM

Memory is another type of storage. It's generally not user-controllable-- you just click "file-save" to put something into memory. Instead, software is designed to use memory to maximize efficiency. RAM storage is much faster than hard drive storage, but is much more limited in size. If you run out of memory for running programs or having files open to be worked on, there is a part of your hard disk that functions like memory, but you'll see a performance loss, since memory is accessed much more quickly than your disk.

Increasing memory will allow you to have more programs loaded into memory, more Firefox tabs open, your OS can load more processes into memory, etc., so your computer will be "faster" if you are doing a lot of multitasking or running memory-intensive programs like video editing or watching streaming videos.

There's an important distinction that we often hear in computing: hard drive storage and memory are different! Again, your hard drive is what permanently stores your data. If you "run out of space" to save new files or install new programs on your computer, you haven't run out of memory, you've filled up your entire hard drive. This is a rough analogy, but some equate the hard disk to long-term memory, and memory to short-term memory. If you're always going to remember something, it's in long term memory (ie a file that you can always access when you turn your computer off and on is on your hard drive). Your computer's memory is only temporary storage used for the speed with which it can be accessed, which makes your computer more efficient.

A scenario you may encounter that illustrates the difference between hard drive and memory:

Let's say you want to update your resume to reflect the fact that you completed the Freegeek Chicago Earn-a-Computer program from 9/09 through 11/09. You open a word processing program. That program resides permanently on your hard drive. When you open it, it loads into memory to operate most quickly and efficiently. Then you locate your old resume file on your computer. That file lives somewhere on your hard drive. When you find it, it is loaded into memory. For the entire time you are updating it, you are editing the file that's in memory. When you finish, you save the file. You have copied the file that you were editing in memory to your hard drive. You close the word processing program and it frees up the memory that program was occupying.

The Processor

Find the processor on your computer. If it is a socket processor, disassemble by removing the heat sink and fan, flipping the retaining latch up, and removing the processor. Explain what you're doing to your volunteers as you do it, and have one or two of your volunteers match what you just did (removing the heatsink-fan, opening up the latch, and then removing the processor, and then replacing all of them).

If your computer has a slot processor, you can just disengage the locking mechanism, if there is one, and remove the processor.

I'd recommend that you find a motherboard that has the opposite processor loading mechanism to the one you have, to show your volunteers both types of attachment.

The processor is what is responsible for anything changing on your computer. All the other parts of your computer are responsible for storing information, for reading and writing strings of data. The processor is the only part of your computer that changes data. Anything that "happens" on your computer happens because your processor has done some banging together of numbers to make that happen. The changes that it allows can be as seemingly small as your mouse cursor moving across the screen or as magnificent as your computer running a 3-D game, in which it has to handle the amalgamation of millions of shapes while dynamically adjusting to your input.

An oft-used analogy is that the processor is the brain of the computer. Or its engine. Either gives you a sense of how important the processor is.

The processor is largely the determinant of how "fast" your computer is. The better your processor, the more of the simple calculations it can do in a second. So your computer can handle more complex tasks without you noticing a slow down. Processors are typically rated by their "clock speed"-- how many times their internal clocks tick in a second. The processors most of our earn-a-computer boxes use "tick" 400 million to 1 billion times a second. Modern processors have clocks that "tick" 2-3 billion times a second and can do two to four computations simultaneously.

The Motherboard

The motherboard, or mainboard, is responsible for integrating your computer components into a working system that moves data around and provides a user with input and output. It's name is indicative of it's function-- you can think of the motherboard as the "mother" of the family of components in your computer system, which it keeps integrated into a functioning "family unit."

It is easily identifiable as the "big green circuit board at the back of the computer." All of your components connect to it.

Your motherboard also provides you with most of the basic input and output connections your computer uses. On the back of the computer, there's a panel, called the rear panel, of connectors that your motherboard provides for you to connect a keyboard and a mouse, a printer, a serial data device, and USB devices.

Expansion Cards

Expansion cards are used to supplement your computer's hardware, usually by providing input and output connections that are unavailable on your motherboard.

The Video Card

The video card is what renders information to your screen. It is the site for the connection between your computer and your monitor. It also does some of the 2-D and 3-D rendering of video (ie it slaps together lines and shapes when programs like games need that to be done).

The connector is probably the hardest for new builders to identify. It is trapezoidal in shape and is usually color coded royal blue. If you have trouble remembering how to identify a video card, how to distinguish it from other expansion cards, I'd recommend committing to memory that it's connector is blue.

The Sound Card

The sound card, as its name suggests, handles sound input and output. You connect anything you want to output (speakers, headphones) or input (a microphone, maybe a tape deck or phonograph) sound to and from, respectively.

You can distinguish the sound card, again, by the connectors it offers. There will be a row of 2-5 small, perfectly circular connectors that are the same size and shape as those you'd connect headphones to on a cell phone, mp3 player, or cd player. They're often color coded. The light green connector is your speaker output connector.

The NIC Card

The NIC card goes by many names. It's called the ethernet card, the Internet card, network card. We like to call it the NIC, said like the name "Nick," which stands for "Network Interface Card." It's the most descriptive name, we think. It's job is to allow you to connect your computer to an ethernet network. If you have a high-speed Internet connection, you connect your DSL or cable modem to this card to get Internet access.

It is most easily identifiable by it's connector, which looks like a telephone jack, though it is a little wider and taller than a phone jack.

Starting Volunteers on Tear Down


It is very important that you know before you start tearing down what your process is. If your computer is going to be recycled, you'll usually have a lot more work ahead of you-- you'll have to strip all of the parts out of the case and separate them, separate metal, plastic, fans, wiring, and incidental circuit boards. These all need to be separated and placed in bins for recycling or testing. If your computer is going to be rebuilt, your work is generally to remove memory, all drives (hard drives, floppy, and optical drives, zip/ whatever else), memory, and expansion cards. You will leave the power supply, motherboard, processor, and the entire case intact.


If your computer is going down the "to be recycled" path, once you finish, you'll have a bunch of parts, metal, plastic, wiring. If it's going to be rebuilt, you'll have a bunch of components that will need to be tested. Show volunteers where all this stuff goes. Much of the stuff that needs to get tested now goes on a shelf at the end of the tear down tables for untested hardware. The untested hard drive and memory boxes float around a bit, but are usually by the memory/ hard drive test area. Metal will go by the door, plastic in the bins at the end of the tear down tables opposite the untested hardware shelf. Wiring is now sorted by type. Power supplies are now sorted as well! Tell volunteers that if they don't understand how the wiring or power supplies are sorted, they should ask a nearby staffperson or supervolunteer.


If your computer is going to be rebuilt it is very important that you do not lose track of any of the parts of your case. Keep track of your any panels you remove to gain access to parts for tear down. If you had to remove any cages from the case to remove the drives, reattach the cage to the case, or at a minimum put the cage in a plastic bag and tape it to the case. If your case uses drive rails or some proprietary means of affixing a drive or other hardware, this needs to stay with the case. Reattach it if you can, or put it in a Ziploc and tape it to the case.

See also

Portland's wiki pages:


Comment by Taylor Hales on Thu Nov 12 00:16:36 2009

TO DO: *Re-write processor and memory sections with better wording *Add a discussion of data volume measurements: bits, bytes, etc. *Add an optional in-depth processor discussion

Comment by Scott Lewis on Tue Nov 17 13:19:07 2009

TO DO: Add short safety lecture (maybe under hardware?)

  • Safety in the space
    • Walk, don't run.
    • Be careful on the dungeon stairs. Or use the elevator.
  • Computer/electrical safety
    • Carelessness can fry parts.
    • More importantly, carelessness can fry YOU. Electrocution is only funny in cartoons.
      • When working on a system:
        • Always unplug it.
        • Always turn off and disconnect the monitor.
        • Try not to sweat, bleed, urinate, or spill drinks into it.

Comment by Scott Lewis on Tue Nov 17 13:19:30 2009

TO DO: Add short safety lecture (maybe under hardware?)

  • Safety in the space
    • Walk, don't run.
    • Be careful on the dungeon stairs. Or use the elevator.
  • Computer/electrical safety
    • Carelessness can fry parts.
    • More importantly, carelessness can fry YOU. Electrocution is only funny in cartoons.
      • When working on a system:
        • Always unplug it.
        • Always turn off and disconnect the monitor.
        • Try not to sweat, bleed, urinate, or spill drinks into it.

Error: Macro AddComment(None) failed
Error: Insufficient privileges to AddComment

History | Last updated by Taylor Hales, 7 years ago