Innovative upgrade

Walnut Hills students convert computers at fraction of cost

By Camilla Warrick, Post staff reporter

Well, kid: You can't always get what you want.

When they said they were sorry, they were. They really did want to buy those new computers.

But Walnut Hills High School, in the midst of building a $12 million arts and science center, has had to prioritize its needs.

The school just can't replace its computer lab, as promised. Maybe next year.

Any of these explanations might have satisfied Shimon Rura, a 16-year-old senior. Or they might have turned him into a cynic.

Shimon's idealism, however, was not that easily bruised. He and a circle of friends decided to take matters into their own hands. They figured out a way to upgrade 24 computers at roughly 2 percent of the cost of a new system.

That's right. By donating their own time and ingenuity, they whittled a $100,000 project into a $2,000 job.

Come fall, Walnut Hills' students will sign onto a ''robust, multi-user, multi-tasking operating system,'' which will lead them to places they've never been before.

Why did they do it?

Because the existing computers, ''all icons of obsolescence'' (as Shimon describes them), would not allow them to take Advanced Placement Computer Science, which uses the College Board's standardized curriculum. Walnut Hills' computers were only capable of running the old computer language, Pascal, not the more current C++ language demanded by the new curriculum.

Translation: These kids want knowledge.

Maybe they aren't as thwarted as Abe Lincoln, who had to strain to read by firelight after his family had gone to bed. But a similar hunger fuels them.

''I really want to take the course,'' Shimon said. ''I don't know too much about programming actually. It will be fun to learn.''

To Walnut Hills' principal, Marvin O. Koenig, such enterprise is not unusual. At Cincinnati Public's most academically driven school, he encounters any number of students who push themselves, their teachers and the school's facilities to the limit. Koenig had never met Shimon, but Shimon had the endorsement of computer science teacher Karen Matthews and he had a proven ability for AP (advanced placement) courses. This fall, for instance, four out of his five courses will be AP.

And yet, signing off on Shimon's proposal did require a certain leap of faith.

That's because Shimon and his friends (Ben Cooper, Coleman Kane, Ben and Peter Barker and a few others) wanted to tinker and hack in earnest. Had they failed, Koenig would be the guy at central office doing the explaining.

Although $2,000 isn't a large sum, you can't toss it around in a penny-pinching school district.

Shimon's proposal involved creating a variation of the mainframe/terminal set-up common to businesses and educational institutions. He suggested building a server computer and running an operating system off of it. All the existing computers would get ''network cards,'' hooking them together and enabling them to run the necessary software off a floppy disk.

The key would be using Linux, a version of Unix, which was developed by Linus Torvalds when he was a grad student at the University of Helsinki. Shimon says Linux ''has a pretty strong following'' worldwide and is constantly being added onto and perfected by computer hobbyists.

''The great thing about Linux is it's totally free, including the source code and all the necessary software,'' he said.

The other great thing was Shimon's friends. Coleman, he says, is a PC hardware expert, and Ben a Unix guru. Further, all of them were prepared to search the Internet for the best prices, mail-order parts and build the server themselves.

Things were proceeding as planned, with money donated by Walnut Hills' alumni foundation, then Shimon made an alarming discovery. Seven of the old computers had compatible processors; 17 did not.

It was an expletive-deleted moment. But not a defeating one.

Another Walnut Hills alumni, Alan Immerman, owns a computer store. He was able to get the boys some good, used processors and motherboards for about $300. This is allowing them to complete the conversions. But ''it's quite a task,'' Shimon acknowledged, ''because the cases deviate from the standard.''

This is why 10-year-old computers tend to get buried under 30-year-old refrigerators, not recycled.

But Shimon's mother, Lyenna, says her son is as persistent as anyone she's ever met. ''When he was little he would cry until he'd something done. When he was 4 or 5 he decided he wanted to make a light fixture out of a shoebox, and he stuck with it until he did it, accepting help from no one,'' she said. ''But there's a nobility about him too. He does things he thinks are right.''

Koenig has no regrets that he took a risk, giving the boys a chance to prove themselves and to save their school system about $98,000.

''It's wonderful to see these flashes of brilliance every now and then,'' he said.

Publication date: 08-12-98

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