NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

The Washington Accelerated Learning Center in Pasadena, California, has a classroom now that is filled with desktop computers for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students. More than half of them are surplus equipment from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, distributed in a new statewide program under federal laws and policies.

"The children are doing word processing and graphics," said Yvonne Mizell, Pasadena district coordinator for gifted and talented children's programs and for the Saturday Science Academy held at the center. "With the JPL computers we can use the computer lab as a full-scale classroom for the first time."

The computers were cleaned up, installed and loaded with software by Washington Accelerated Learning Center teacher Mark Jones and John Muir High School student Jeffrey Lawson, a part-time teacher's aide at the center. Coming from government storage as used merchandise, they were dusty and a few were not working. These will become useful study material for a computer repair class at neighboring Pasadena City College before they come back to Pasadena's public schools.

These are just two of the dozens of public and private school districts and groups, community colleges and small universities that are benefiting from JPL's new computer hardware distribution program.

The new distribution program, modeled after successful property distributions at other NASA centers, was launched in January as a pilot project to determine what kind of a response the program would receive from local schools. As it turned out, JPL disposed of about 3,000 items, including desktop computers, keyboards, monitors and printers in no time flat. Ten Southern California school districts jumped at the opportunity to participate.

With the pilot phase completed, JPL has opened up the distribution to all public school districts in California, plus diocese and similar offices for parochial and private nonprofit schools. Community colleges, state universities and private colleges were also invited to sign up.

Each must formally authorize official "screeners" to select equipment on designated days at the appropriate government warehouse and certify that they will use the equipment for educational or research purposes as provided by the law before arranging to acquire and pick up the items.

Pasadena's chief "screener," Information Technology Director Bennet Kayser, went to the warehouse almost every week during the pilot program. "Now it's by appointment only, with so many other districts in the program," he said, "but still it's well worth the trip."

"There are so many schools that we want to help," said Richard Alvidrez, manager of the JPL Public Education Office, "but we can't authorize them individually. They must team up, as districts and other groupings, to benefit from the process."

About 70 organizations have filed the necessary declarations and listings so far, Alvidrez added. They are mostly California public school districts, because other NASA centers perform educational outreach in other states. Almost 20 percent of the applicants are colleges, however, including two from out of state: Montana State University at Bozeman and Sinte Gliska University in South Dakota, both which support strong Native American student populations.

"We had a prior relationship with these colleges," Alvidrez said, noting JPL's involvement with Native American high school outreach programs in California and Arizona as well. "And the distribution effort is not a one-time event," he said, "although it may taper off after the initial warehouse stock is distributed."

Meanwhile, at the Washington Accelerated Learning Center in Pasadena, where elementary school children can now browse the Internet, edit stories and design their own posters, it isn't uncommon to see youngsters glued to their desktop computers, clicking their mice or pounding the keyboards, on their way to the information superhighway.

Using their newly acquired JPL computers, a donated high-speed communications modem and the guidance of their teachers, these kids have already learned how to communicate with other institutions around the country via electronic mail.

"This morning they communicated with the JPL, Harvard and John Muir High School's computer bulletin boards that Jeffrey Lawson had set up," fellow instructor Mizell proudly noted. "Who knows what tomorrow will bring."

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