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IT course challenges Fox Chapel students

Tawnya Panizzi
| Tuesday, June 17, 2003

For most people, a malfunctioning computer is a headache.

For students in Fox Chapel Area's information technology course, it's a challenge.

"We learned to build computers one piece at a time," said Chris Pofi, a junior who signed on for the elective when it was integrated into the curriculum last year. "We see what each separate part does and where it fits in."

In conjunction with the $14 million renovations to the high school in 2002, a $325,000 computer lab was installed and curriculum updated. It used to be that technology students studied electronics and learned to build circuits. Now, they can build computers.

It may not be something he aspires to study after graduation, but Pofi said computer education can be applied in daily life. For example, when classmate Pete Caponi dropped his computer down the steps this winter, he didn't panic.

Instead, he brought it school and with help from teacher Keith Studt, they fixed it.

"I would've never had the confidence to do that before," said Caponi, 17. "The hardest part was pinpointing the problem, but we took it apart and found it."

Preston Hartman, also 17, said his home computer was targeted by a virus and his parent's first reaction was to pay to have it fixed.

"All I had to do was refragment the harddrive," Hartman said. "My parents were shocked that I could do and it made me feel pretty good."

According to Studt, that's the main objective to the new course -- to not only master the work but boost their confidence.

"So they'd be willing to take someone's computer apart and not worry about breaking something," said Studt, a 29-year teaching veteran. "These kids now know computers inside and out, the components and their function."

The course, which spans over three years, starts with basic knowledge of parts and programs and builds its way to networking, maintenance and upgrading. Most students know little more than how to run games and basic software when they start, Studt said.

By the time they graduate, students can perform at a professional level, according to technology teacher Richard Palucis.

Most are qualified to take the state-governed A-plus certification exam that permits them to work in the field.

But before students ever touch a piece of Ram or a motherboard, the work is simulated on screen. With help from a piece of equipment called digiac, students can pick apart on-screen images piece by piece, create technological problems and troubleshoot, and learn configuration. They learn to install operating systems and drivers for sound and video cards.

"I have $2,000 invested in parts," Studt said of the hardware used for in-class assembly. The parts are like carrots dangled before the students. "Before they touch them, students do it all on the screen."

Palucis said that students are riding the wave of cutting-edge technology in this relatively new class.

"How many times do you have to call the tech guy when your computer breaks?" Palucis asked. "The kids that go through this class are the tech guys."

In fact, learning the ins and outs of computer technology can be a cost-saving lesson, Palucis said. He cited a common example of retailers charging about $50 for labor to upgrade a computer.

"It's a matter of taking two screws out and knowing where to put the RAM," he said.

Not only can the lessons halt hardware headaches at home, but students also are applying skills to benefit the community.

This year, class culminated with students whipping together wires and panels to build two new computers, complete with DVD and CD drives. This fall, they plan on building 20 systems to donate to needy families through ALL of Us Care, the Lower Valley's drug awareness and crime prevention group.

Larry Gizzi, 17, said the computer course is the highlight of his schedule.

"It's fun learning new stuff about computers that you didn't know, and then being able to apply it," he said.

It seems as if that notion is catching on. The course has nearly doubled in class size since last year, when nine students enrolled.

Studt said already 17 students have scheduled the class for fall.

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