Mountain View Voice

News - November 12, 2010

Students boot up classmates

High school project brings computers to kids who need them

by Nick Veronin

Two local high school seniors are taking old, unwanted computers donated by the community, repairing essential components and software, and giving the machines to fellow students in need.

The project, called Silicon for Society, began in the summer of 2009 in an effort to provide less fortunate students with the tools they need to succeed in a world where computer literacy is essential, co-founder Jack Montgomery said.

As a freshman at Los Altos High School, Montgomery read about Eastern and European cultures in his World Studies class. He was introduced to foreign customs and took in images and artwork from places he had never been.

However, even as Montgomery buried his nose in texts detailing the idiosyncrasies of faraway lands, he was astonished to learn of a community much closer to home — a community which lived in a manner entirely alien him.

"I didn't know that there was anybody who didn't have a computer around here," recalled Montgomery, who is now a senior.

Montgomery had noticed that some students would turn in handwritten essays, but said it didn't click until the end of his first year in high school, when he found out that one of his English classmates lived in a home without a computer. "I had never, at least consciously, encountered someone who had never used a computer before," he said.

The discovery made an impression on Montgomery, who began discussing it with his friend, Tyler Stout, another senior at Los Altos.

"Ever since I was little, I have had unlimited access to a computer," Stout wrote in an e-mail. "It was not fair to these kids that they were underperforming simply because they lacked proper tools."

And so, toward the end of their sophomore year, Montgomery and Stout, friends since eighth grade, decided to take action. They founded Silicon for Society — a registered non-profit — and began collecting old desktops and laptops from families who no longer needed them.

Montgomery, the computer whiz of the pair, set up shop in his bedroom, where he pulls the computers apart, cleans their components, installs operating systems and software, and recycles the parts that are too old or broken.

Stout, who has had an interest in philanthropy from a young age, began writing grants and did the legwork to get the project under the umbrella of the Los Altos Community Foundation, a local charitable organization.

In the early stages of Silicon for Society, Stout realized that not only had some students never owned a computer — some had never used the computer programs that came as second nature to him and Montgomery. Stout came up with the idea of providing free tutoring classes to teach digital newcomers the basics of computer operations.

Montgomery and Stout now require computer recipients to complete a rudimentary skills course before they are allowed to take the machines home. Students learn how to use the Linux operating system installed on all Silicon for Society computers, and are shown the basics of Internet search, word processing, slide shows and spreadsheets. Montgomery estimates he and Stout spend about six hours each week tutoring.

"Sometimes they didn't even know what they were missing," Montgomery said. These computers aren't only adding to students academic capabilities; having Internet access adds another dimension of social interaction to these students' lives. They can laugh along with their other friends over a recent YouTube meme or share interesting links on Facebook.

"If you could see the look on these students faces (when they get their first computer), that's kind of worth it in itself."

In many cases, Montgomery said, the computer ends up being used by the whole family. "That's pretty cool, actually, to see everybody in the family gathering around looking at this thing," he said. "You fire it up and then, 'Oh! Wow!'"

Because all the computers are donated by the community, Silicon for Society has a very low overhead. Grants are used to pay for printing instructional materials or to replace components that are either missing or beyond repair. By using Linux and the accompanying suite of free applications, Montgomery and Stout don't have to worry about expensive licensing fees.

"It wouldn't work without Linux," Montgomery said.

So far, Montgomery estimates Silicon for Society has repaired and donated about 30 computers — a mix of laptops and desktops — to students at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools. Some of the computers have also gone to students at Almond Elementary.

"There is a community element to it," Montgomery said. "I think people feel like they are doing something important when they help somebody out locally."

Montgomery said he would like to start his own business one day. Stout plans to major in economics. They aren't entirely sure what will become of their project after this year, although Stout's younger brother has expressed interest in taking over. If one or both teens end up going to college locally, they may continue donating computers.

Both teens said that they hope whatever they end up doing after college will benefit society.

"Whatever anyone can do to improve their community or a fellow individual makes a huge difference," Stout wrote.

"Silicon for Society allows me to use the technology that I love to help people to do things with their life," Montgomery said. "I'd like to do that in my career, as well. If I could do that, it would be really fulfilling."

Anyone interested in donating a computer can contact Montgomery and Stout at siliconforsociety@gmail.com or 415-881-7342.

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