‘I Give Them a New Life': High School Student Tackles Silicon Valley's Digital Divide with Refurbished Computers

Growing up in the shadows of Google, Facebook and other technology giants, 16-year-old Terence Lee, has spent his life surrounded by the latest gadgets the industry has to offer.

However, the junior at Los Altos High School knows that even in Silicon Valley, a digital divide persists for less privileged students.

"Because much of the work is done outside of the classroom, it puts people without a computer at a disadvantage," Lee said.

Between an increasingly integrated curriculum, group projects and coding classes beginning as early as elementary school, Lee said he wanted to find a way to get low-income students their own laptops to take home. 

An avid recycler, he also wanted to work with what was already available and would be financially sustainable.

"In the heart of Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of technology," Lee said.

Individuals, school districts, companies all update their computers as often as every few years, Lee explained, "because of the constant need to have the latest [technology] so that they can continue to work."

With the help of his parents, classmates and the community, he launched Los Altos-nonprofit EqOpTech, which not only refurbishes laptops, but teaches STEM classes.

The organization was inspired by a refurbishing drive Lee had held two years ago for his Eagle Scout Service Project, which even earned a nod from former President Barack Obama.

Before his term ended, Obama designated Lee and other Bay Area students who helped him, a President's Volunteer Service Award for their earlier work benefiting disadvantaged students — and they hope EpOpTech will help even more students in need.

Rebecca Greenway
Peter Swenson, right, a computer science teacher at Egan Junior High School, works with EqOpTech founder Terence Lee, right, at a weekly, after-school workshop in Los Altos, California.

For the last six months at Egan Junior High School, Los Altos High School freshman, Daniel Lim, Lee and their former computer science teacher, Peter Swenson, have been leading a Computer-in-a-Box program to mentor younger students on computer software.

Together, the group works on refurbishing the donated machines. And after Los Altos School District donated roughly 200 laptops to the group — they've been pretty busy. 

"Instead of scrapping them, [the school district] donated [the laptops] to us and we found a new life for them," Lee said.

Fueled by pizza, juice boxes and dedication to their cause, the group gets about eight to 10 laptops upgraded every Monday after school. However, they found refurbishing hundreds of circa 2006 laptops would require not only tech-savvy skills —  but patience.

Rebecca Greenway
Students work with refurbished laptops at a weekly, after-school workshop in Egan Junior High School in Los Altos, California.

"Students are learning the difficulty of working with older technology. It's a little slower than they're used to," Swenson said. "It's interesting watching them work with the older machine, teaching them a bit of patience."

But after each has been restored, those laptops find their next home.

"It's always in our best interest to get everything fully functioning [and] fully capable for each kid," Lee said. 

That's because they go directly to families that need the machines. Nearby school teachers give Lee the number of students that don't have easy access to computer at home, and he disperses them directly to the school for the students to take back home.

The effort comes as a particular relief to school districts with high percentages of low-income students, which has now been acknowledged at the state level as well.

Sen. Jerry Hill presented the students with a Congressional Award Gold Medal for volunteerism in April and commended the group on their achievement in the Inspire Mountain View challenge so far, which would grant his nonprofit $25,000 to continue their refurbishing work. The group is currently a finalist in the competition. 

"Technology is always something I've been really passionate about," Lee said. "And I give them a new life because I’m able to install the necessary software."

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