Students build computers, aim for college

Posted: Monday, May 03, 2010

Here's a deal.

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Photo Courtesy Of Robert Gransbury
Photo Courtesy Of Robert Gransbury
Zeb Peterson, from Kenai, starting to wire his components.

There's a University of Alaska Anchorage-based group that will teach high school students how to build a computer, help them assemble it, let them use that machine through high school and, as long as they complete three specific advanced math and science courses, they can keep it.

No, there's no catch, though those three courses -- trigonometry, physics and chemistry -- aren't exactly easy.

This past month, as part of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program's pre-college component, 15 Kenai Peninsula youth built their own computers.

The pre-college program is geared to engage Alaska Native and Native American high school students early on so they're ready for engineering-, science-, technology- and mathematics-based degrees in college.

Greta Cox, a school counselor at Kenai Central High School, said she works with her colleagues around the district to seek out Native freshmen and sophomores who will match well with ANSEP.

"It's the first thing they can do to get in the pipeline for ANSEP," Cox said of the program, which seeks to boost university recruitment and retention rates for Natives.

So long as the students pass those three courses before they graduate, they'll be allowed to keep their computers, regardless of where they may end up afterward.

Students also have opportunities as juniors and seniors to take part in summer programs.

Robert Gransbury, a regional director with ANSEP, helped the peninsula students build their computers.

He said he sees a range of background knowledge on the internal workings of the machines coming from the kids.

"Usually there's one or two that know what's inside a computer, and a few that have their own and can install RAM," he said. "But everyone learns a little bit and for the vast majority of students it's all brand new."

Typically, he said, the assembly process goes fairly smoothly barring any damaged components or software issues.

"There are some moments that they are flexing their brain a little," he said.

For the most part, though, he said the students are able to do much of the work themselves and can usually have their machines up and running in two or three days.

Despite the sometimes mind-blowing pace of technological development, Gransbury said that the students can keep their machines running and performing for a long life, even by today's standards.

"We teach them how to keep the computers updated and they are pretty top of the line," he said.

The computer-build part of ANSEP's pre-college program has grown significantly in the past seven years since its conception in 2003, Gransbury said. They're building about 200 machines across the state each year now.

Of course, it's not solely growth that Gransbury points to as a sign of success; it's the program's retention rate, one of ANSEP's overall key goals.

"We have a 62 percent of those pre-college students passing those classes, and at university our retention rate is 70 percent," he said. "The national average for science-, technology-, engineering- and mathematics-based degrees is about 33 percent regardless of ethnicity."

Dante Petri can be reached at

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