Columbus ‘geeks’ use their skills to help others
Monday, November 06, 2006

Columbus is the site of a growing coalition of systems analysts, programmers and technicians who are using their skills to help their community. From recycling old computers to teaching in urban afterschool programs, these geeky young women and men are using their skills to reduce the burden on landfills and help train a future generation of technologists.

FreeGeek Columbus is an organization that collects and reconditions donated computers. When you upgrade to the latest and greatest technology, these FreeGeek Columbus volunteers exercise their geek prowess by disassembling your old computer and using the components to build fullyfunctional refurbished computer systems.

Nonfunctional or obsolete components are sorted and taken to a recycler, who grinds them down and separates the resulting dust into different types of raw materials which can then be reused by manufacturers.

The renovated computers are then made available free to volunteers who have donated 24 hours or more of their time to help with these projects. The computers come with thousands of dollars worth of software, including the GNU/Linux operating system, Mozilla Firefox and OpenOffice. Aspiring geeks who are not familiar with these applications have the opportunity to take a free class taught by other FreeGeek volunteers, to learn how to make the most of their new computer.

Focusing on broadening participation in computing is the TWiCE (The Women in Computer Engineering) project at Ohio State University. This program primarily benefits two demographics: undergraduate women majoring in computer science, and girls living in lowincome households.

Undergraduate women form a small minority within the CSE/CIS major, about 10 percent. Without visible peers or role models, these students often feel it is necessary for them to perform at the top of their class in order to earn the same level of respect that their male counterparts receive naturally. Members of TWiCE provide technical support and role modeling for girls at the beginning of the pipeline in elementary school. They also assist with Web site support, curriculum development and instruction.

TWiCE is part of a larger partnership project called the Gidget Pipeline Project. Leveraging the skills and resources available through TWiCE, Tech Corps Ohio, the University Area Enrichment Association and the Women in Technology group at OSU, the Gidget Project forms a technology pipeline for women. Girls entering this pipeline incrementally build critical technology skills tied directly to their future educational and professional success.

Many of the girls who participate in Gidget’s Girl Tech Corps classes have parents who work more than one job and are absent most of the day, evening and night. The girls from this area are on their own much of the time and, consequently, they are at greater risk for a range of problems, including risk-taking behaviors.

For many people, the term geek has a stigma that conjures images of pocket protectors and slide rules and that group of socially awkward kids who missed the prom to stay home and play World of Warquest. Not so for the folks of FreeGeek Columbus, TWiCE and Gidget, who see the label as a badge of honor that attests to their ability to use technology to improve the quality of life in their communities.

Bettina A. Bair is director of TWiCE and a lecturer in the computer science and engineering department at Ohio State University.