Last November, the Confalonieri Public Junior High School in Monza, Northern Italy set up a really interesting and original optional course for its students. When I heard about it on an Italian mailing list I contacted the two teachers who run the course, Fabio Frittoli and Francesco De Gennaro (quoted below as F&F for brevity) to know something more.

Stop: What’s the course subject?

F&F: The course consists of five afternoon meetings, during two hours each, in which the students build one computer per participant with these characteristics:

Stop: How many students participated?

F&F: We had 16 students of the Third Classes (13 yrs old) and 20 of the Second Classes (12 yrs old), including several foreign students and one with a minor cognitive handicap.

Stop: How much did they pay to attend?

F&F: Two hundred Euros per student, which the School used to buy the hardware online. The extra work hours of the teachers are paid directly by the School.

Stop: A course like this for students in that age range is really unusual, at least here in Italy. Why did you set it up?

F&F: For several reasons. First of all, we wanted to involve students who have little attitude for abstract studies, that is boys and girls who aren’t interested in theoretical courses like the European Computer Driving License. We wanted to give them a chance to show what they’re capable of with a //practical// activity which could also help them to figure out if this could become their job in the future. Eventually, some participants attended for this very reason, while others came just out of personal interest in computers.

Stop: What are the other reasons?

F&F: We wanted to teach them that to do something well you can’t do without skills like: being able to listen, studying Italian and English well enough to understand instruction sheets, following complex procedures step by step plus order, cleanness and correct choice of tools.

Last but not least, we think that the “use and discard” attitude towards objects seen as unmodifiable, finished monolothic products must be rejected, in order to make everybody an active and conscious participant to technological progress. We all need to teach to young people that high-tech objects are made of single, discrete components that people can assemble or reuse by themselves, or recycles separately.

Stop: How did it go?

F&F: The November course was a great success! Some of the kids were so interested that they would almost stick their whole heads inside the cases, in order to look “under the hood”. Fearing that students so young could damage some component, we had bought some extra parts, but so far we haven’t needed them. All the students, including the most rebellious ones, worked in couples (each couple built assembled computers) in a very ordered and collaborative way, surprising even us, our teachers.

Stop: Why?

F&F: Because… we really were used to see them behaving in quite a different way! This course proved how much good, personality-wise, building something with your own hands can do. Courses like ours can turn into enthusiast, proactive students even kids who during theoretical lessons tend to shut their brains down or to disturb the rest of the class. The pleasure of discovering how some object works and what’s inside it still exists, and is the same we enjoyed when we were kids. Unfortunately, practical activities in Italian public high schools are becoming every year more difficult to implement, especially considering the last “reform”.

Stop: Let’s talk a bit about the software part. Regular readers of Stop!/Zona-M already know that Ubuntu is a free operating system that’s a pleasure for everybody to use and that it is great for schools, but why did you chose it?

F&F: First of all, we wanted to save money and educate our students to act legally: we could not induce them to install programs without respecting their license! Besides, we wanted to fight the myth that other operating systems are more difficult to use and less featured or visually appealing than Windows.

Stop: Congratulations, especially because there seems to be little interest in our central government to make Free Software widely known in Italian Public Schools. But did the kids like Ubuntu or not?

F&F: They were very skeptical at the beginning. Some explicitly said that as soon as they could bring their finished computer home they would replace Ubuntu with a pirate copy of Windows. Eventually only a few students did actually did it. Most of them saw the real potential of Ubuntu, namely: its visual effects, the amount of software easily installable from the Internet, the ease of use and how much customizable Ubuntu is… and continue to use it today.

Stop: Is there anything that could or could have gone better?

F&F: It would be good to have more support (probably from some third parties, even if we have no idea who they could be) for the configuration problem that the students could face at home, right after the course. That’s why, in the second edition scheduled for March 2010 we will spend more time to explain how to connect to the Internet from Ubuntu via Ethernet or Wi-Fi cards.