Undercover Cast-offs Get New Mission

November 08, 1994|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writer

Used computers from the National Security Agency will soon start a new mission in a computer lab at Brockbridge Elementary School in Maryland City.

An NSA spokesman said the school is on the waiting list to get cast-off computers from the agency, but he couldn't say how many would be delivered, or when.

Parents hope the donation could allow the lab to open as soon as January, said Jeff Mertens, head of the PTA committee spearheading the project.

The project also needs a lot of elbow grease from the parents along with financial support from the Brockbridge PTA, the Anne Arundel County Board of Education and local businesses. The school students also have been depositing change in a 5-gallon water bottle.

"There's a lot of groups pulling together to try to make this thing happen," he said. But, he added, "NSA is the giant help here."

Parents and businesses have raised more than $15,000 to pay for software, peripheral equipment and cables.

Mr. Mertens said NSA's anticipated gift could be worth more than $30,000.

The school has asked NSA for up to 50 computers, and is hoping they will come equipped with model 286 microchips. Even though those computers are considered outdated when compared with the newer generation 486- and Pentium-chip models now available, they would be a boon to the students who are now using a hodgepodge of ancient machines.

"Right now, we have a mish-mosh, and it's a totally inadequate lab," Brockbridge Principal Henry Shubert said yesterday.

The school has eight old Apple computers that are not linked together and are simply too few to serve classes of 30 students.

Brockbridge also has 13 Commodore 64 computers, but the 15-year-old machines are not compatible with the Apples. They are not networked, and they do not run most software, Mr. Shubert said. Several are broken beyond repair.

"That's really the dinosaur age," Kathleen Happ, interim assistant dean of engineering and computer technologies at the Anne Arundel Community College, said in describing the old Commodores.

"I'm amazed they could find any software to run on them."

NSA has been donating its old, outmoded computers to local schools for more than a year, said Judy Mauriello, coordinator of computer education programs for Anne Arundel County schools. Before the agency turns over the machines, she said, they are wiped clean of all data for security reasons.

Brockbridge Elementary already has set aside a classroom, but it will have to be wired to accommodate the computers and additional lighting for the lab, Mr. Shubert said. Chalkboards and sinks that can harm the sensitive machines must be removed. He said the school can request up to $5,000 from the school district's maintenance budget for these chores.

When the lab is completed, Mr. Mertens said, it may also be available to adults for computer training. During the day, the machines will allow students to access the Internet and other modern computer services. For example, he said, Brockbridge teachers may be able to set up a computer exchange with a Spanish-speaking class in another city.

"There's just a world of opportunities that we can bring into these schools," Mr. Mertens said.

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