Ask a second-grader what computers are good for, and they are likely to answer enthusiastically: “Games!” Ask them how a computer works, and you’re likely to get a shrug. Not the second-graders at Berkeley’s LeConte Elementary School though.

Thanks to a hands-on workshop hosted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, these second-graders now know that the CPU is like a computer’s brain, the RAM its memory, the power supply like a heart and the motherboard its skeleton. “Our goal is to open up their minds to the world of science and computer science,” said Berkeley Lab IT staff member Tammy Campbell. “It’s very important to hit them up at a very young age and get them interested.”

This gaggle of second-graders was more than interested, as each one grasped a screwdriver and diligently worked to open up a keyboard. “Computers are cool!” exclaimed student Zaki Nadeem. Added Raquel Higgs: “I never saw a motherboard before.”

The second-grader computer workshop hosted by the IT Department is one of a number of ways that Berkeley Lab seeks to engage in community education and outreach. In two other programs initiated this year, Lab staff mentored students from local high schools to build robots through a program called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), and separately, 20 women scientists volunteered to mentor more than 60 high school girls to develop science education apps for Android smart phones. Called the Technovation Challenge, the program aims to get girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos has made community relations one of his top priorities since becoming director in 2009. On Oct. 13 this year, the Lab will host an Open House and science fair for the third consecutive year.

Besides learning about the different components that make up a computer, students also have a chance to dismantle a keyboard, write simple programming commands and learn about computer networking by racing to deliver packets of information. The Berkeley Lab IT staff developed their own curriculum for the computer workshop and reviewed it with teachers beforehand to make sure it was age-appropriate.

LeConte has a very diverse student population. “It’s really great to have this opportunity,” said second-grade teacher Virginia Louie. “We have limited resources at school, and many of the kids don’t have access to the after-school enrichment programs and other activities that some kids do.”

In Louie’s classroom, the only computer is an antiquated iMac. Most of her students do have computers at home, but often the parents are not tech-savvy or the computers are outdated. “Sometimes we give parents codes for things like math programs, but they can’t do it or it doesn’t work on their computers,” Louie said.

Besides reaching students, the workshop also aims to expose parents to some of the science being done at Berkeley Lab, whether through the chaperones accompanying the students or those who hear about it from their kids at the end of the day. “Many of the parents didn’t even know Berkeley Lab existed, and they’re Berkeley residents,” Campbell said.

Some parents have intentionally tried to limit their child’s exposure to computers. “It’s only in the last 18 months that we let our daughter use the computer,” said Celeste Low, mother to 8-year-old Riley Low. “It’s amazing how fast they learn. We don’t feel like she has missed out on anything.”

Although they’re still young, many students are already starting to form ideas about what they want to do when they grow up. “It’s a great thing the Lab is doing,” Louie said. “Without being able to understand computers, they’re not going to get very far, because it is a part of our world today.”

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit

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View a time lapse video of the workshop.