From Trash to Treasure: Three Easy Steps to Convert Corporate Garbage into Free Classroom PCs

Getting free computers for your classroom is actually relatively easy. The problem is getting free computers that can run programs without freezing every 90 seconds.

When I started teaching in 2003, every classroom in our school had at least three of those bulky blue iMacs. They were old and slow back then, but they were usable. Today, though, they pretty much just take up space. From what I’ve seen, most schools have machines like these collecting dust in the backs of classrooms or in storage closets, while newer computers never arrive.

The beauty for educators is that refurbishing these computers is fairly simple. (You could even have students do it!) The key is the software. If you’ve got your old computers all ready, skip down to Step 2. But if you’re still in the market for some free machines to revamp, read on.

Step 1: Finding FREE Hardware

Where to go

If you don’t have piles of blue iMacs at your school, not to worry. Surprisingly, there are tons of people basically leaving computers on the side of the road. You just have to find them.

  • From my view, your best bet is local businesses. Most businesses (especially larger ones) replace computers after about five years. Then, they often pay to e-waste those older models. If you take the time to make some calls, many of these businesses would be more than willing to donate their older computers to schools. Think about larger businesses in your area – law firms, hospitals, universities, even aquariums and zoos.
  • You can also try It provides a list of links to organizations that offer free refurbished computers, mostly to schools.
  • If you live in or near a large city, you’ll probably have some luck locating free computers on craigslist. People often buy a new computer and just want to get rid of their old machine, so they’ll offer it for free to anyone who will pick it up.
  • Lastly, if you’re willing to spend a little money (I’m talking like $20 per computer), thrift stores often offer them fairly cheap.

What to look for

Step 2 will allow you to refurbish computers that are extremely old, but obviously newer computers with more RAM will work more smoothly. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find free computers that are only five to ten years old, but if you’re working with older computers, below are the minimum tech specs you’ll want to look for in order to follow the steps listed on this blog. (If your computers don’t meet these requirements, don’t fret yet – using this blog as a starting point, you should still be able to find directions to adequately refurbish them elsewhere online.)

For optimal results, here are the recommended requirements:

  • 700 MHz x86 processor
  • 384 MB of system memory (RAM)
  • 8 GB of disk space
  • Graphics card capable of 1024×768 resolution
  • Sound card
  • A network or Internet connection

Note: All 64-bit (x86-64) PCs should work. When you get to the software step, use the 64-bit installation CD for a 64-bit-optimised installation.

If your computers don’t meet those requirements, there’s still hope if you have these bare minimums (though you’ll probably want to use the “alternate install CD” for the software section):

  • 300 MHz x86 processor
  • 64 MB of system memory (RAM)
  • At least 4 GB of disk space (for full installation and swap space)
  • VGA graphics card capable of 640×480 resolution
  • CD-ROM drive or network card

Step 2: Installing the Software (this is the key)

One of the main reasons older computers lose performance is because of their operating systems. Windows specifically takes up a LOT of memory just to function, not to mention running the programs you’d need in a classroom. Spyware software also sucks up a large chunk of your computer’s energy.

This is why Linux operating systems are perfect for refurbishing older machines. Simply put, Linux requires a lot less energy to run and, similar to the Mac operating system, is nearly virus-proof, so spyware is unnecessary.

Linux also allows users to add and remove specific hardware easily, without leaving traces of hardware behind. Often, users are unable to remove the parts of Windows or Mac they don’t want and, even when programs are uninstalled, they leave chunks of themselves in the computer’s memory. uses the following comparison:

“The Windows philosophy is to create unwieldy swiss army knives, limited in capability by how many features the user purchased on their particular knife. Diminished reliability is arguably a side effect of increased complexity. Thus with Windows, the case is often that you have tools that ALMOST do what you want them to, if they didn’t crash.”

With Windows (and, to some degree, Mac), you’re stuck with the tools on your particular knife. Linux, on the other hand, is more like a jigsaw puzzle. The main Linux software is a small center piece, and all of its tools are tiny and highly specialized pieces that can be attached. Users can decide which tools — or tiny pieces — they need to connect to their main center piece to make the puzzle that’s right for them. If pieces are unnecessary, they can disconnect and remove them completely.

In the end, this leads to a smaller, lighter, and more customized operating system.

For me, though, the best part about Linux is that it’s FREE, as is all its software. You can get free versions of Photoshop, PowerPoint, Word, iMovie, Garageband, and tons more that produce files compatible with the Windows and Mac versions of the software. In other words, your students can create a PowerPoint on the free Linux software and then open it on the Windows computer they have at home. In addition, since all the software is open source, you can give your students CD-ROMs with the exact same software to use on their Windows or Mac computers at home (if they have home computers).

When a friend first suggested Linux to me, I was wary, mostly because I had visions of command-line DOS in my head. But that’s not what Linux is today. On the user-end, it looks a lot like a Windows or Mac computer would:



There are several different versions of the Linux operating system out there, but one of the most popular is Ubuntu. Ubuntu is extremely easy to install on any computer with a CD-ROM drive. You can order an install disk here. Or, if you’re as impatient as I am, you can use a newer computer to burn the install disk, following the directions listed here. You can then use the disk to install Ubuntu on any number of computers.

(If you’re looking to install Ubuntu on netbooks, check out my February 8, 2010 post. If you’re working with older computers that meet the bare minimum requirements, you’ll want to read about the installation options listed here, specifically the section on “Minimal Installations.”)

Once you’ve got your CD-ROM ready, this video gives great step-by-step directions on installing Ubuntu:

Here’s another video with fairly good directions, but even more impressive is that it was created by a middle-schooler, proving that this is a task you could hand off to any students willing to stay in at recess or after school. (If you don’t have the time for this – and, as teachers, do we ever really have the time for anything? – you could even offer this entire project, from step 1 to 3, to your students. It would give them valuable computing skills, as well as giving you some useful computers for your class.)

Both of these videos briefly discuss “partitioning.” Partitioning allows you to dual-boot Ubuntu and another operating system, like Windows. In other words, you can have both Ubuntu and Windows on a single computer. If you’re installing Ubuntu on an older computer because Windows is too slow or isn’t working properly, you’re NOT going to want to dual-boot. So ignore the partitioning directions in the videos. Rather, on the appropriate screen, select “use the entire disk” and click “forward.” This will bypass the partitioning sections of the install. (However, if you’d like to have Ubuntu on a newer computer in addition to Windows or Mac, the partitioning directions might be beneficial.)

Instead of installing Ubuntu, teachers might want to seriously consider installing Edubuntu. It’s a version of Ubuntu created specifically for schools. Edubuntu installs much in the same manner as described above; it just comes pre-packaged with a ton of educational applications (meaning less work for you, though you’d need a computer with a little more memory). I haven’t personally tried it, but you can find all the information you need at

Step 3: Find the programs you’ll need

If you decide to install Edubuntu, rather than just Ubuntu, you’ll most likely find that you have all the programs you need (and more) already. In other words, you’re already done! If, however, you’d like to choose just a few specific programs to offer your students, it’s pretty easy to customize your refurbished Ubuntu computer.

Remember: all of these programs are FREE and open source, so go crazy. Try them out and, if you decide they’re not what you want, Ubuntu allows you to completely delete them without a problem.

To add or remove programs, after you’ve got Ubuntu up and running, go to the Applications menu and click “add/remove programs.” You can delete programs you don’t need or, as long as you have Internet access, download and install new applications. It’s incredibly easy to install programs – from the add/remove menu, you simply search by name or by category, and choose the programs you’d like.

Here are some suggested educational programs that I’ve tried (most are used at Saugus Union School District, as listed on their technology wiki):

All Subjects


Social Studies


English Language Arts (lots under “All Subjects” above)


Scratch - Full Screenshot

Scratch – Full Screenshot

Art and Photography

Educational Games

Jim Klein, of Saugus Union School District, provides a more complete “short list” of educational open-source software that his district considered.

For more software suggestions, you might want to check out the programs Edubuntu includes in its install, and choose those that suit your needs. Detailed descriptions of all the applications included in the edubuntu install can be found at

Also, the KDE Education Project is the source of quite a few quality education programs. Lastly, there are some great Ubuntu application suggestions on The Open Source School, a blog by the principal of a New Zealand high school that only uses open source technology.


These steps aren’t just for refurbishing classroom computers. You might be a teacher who only has one or two students without home computers – this a wonderful way to set those kids up with home computers that they can use for school assignments. It’s also a nice way to have a few extra computers at your home. I have a friend who used Ubuntu to refurbish older machines so each of his kids can have their own personal computer. (Imagine the arguments you could prevent!)


Elementary School Classrooms

Grade: 3-5
Subject: Science
Objective: The student will be able to illustrate how energy flows through ecosystems.

At the beginning of a unit introducing energy in living systems, have students use Dia diagramming software to illustrate how energy is transferred from the sun to plants to animals. Based on their grade level, this diagram can be simple or extremely detailed. At this point, the diagram doesn’t need to be accurate. Students can create the diagram alone, in groups, or even whole-class. Students could print it out for their notes or present it to the class.

The diagram should be a living document. As students proceed through the unit and learn more about the interdependence of organisms, they should edit and add to their diagram as needed. For example, as you learn about different plants and animals throughout the school year, students could add them to their diagram.

The beauty of having the diagram in electronic form, rather than on paper, is that it’s easy to edit and make much, much larger as students learn more. It’s also easier to keep organized, as many student-drawn diagrams will get very messy very quickly.


Middle School Classrooms

Grade: 5-8
Subject: Geometry
Objective: The student will be able to use ordered pairs to describe points on a coordinate grid.

Students can use Scratch, a logic-based computer programming tool, to explore coordinate grids with a real-world connection. Based on their level, you can create easier or more difficult questions and tasks. Use a worksheet to guide students through the activity.

For example, in this lesson by Karen Randall, you can have them answer the following questions (see worksheet on page 2 of this document), with a focus on the vocabulary quadrant, ordered pair, x coordinate, y coordinate, X-axis, Y-axis, and origin:

  1. What is the default location of the cat when you open a project? How does that location change when you drag the cat to other places on the screen?
  2. How can you draw lines by changing the x and/or y coordinate for the location of a sprite?
  3. How can you draw a line by changing one coordinate?
  4. How can you draw the x and y axis of the coordinate grid by using coordinate pairs?
  5. How can you use coordinate pairs to draw specific shapes, such as your initials?

For more Scratch lesson plans, check out

You can also find Kig geometry lesson plans at

High School Classrooms

Grade: 9-12
Subject: Chemistry
Objectives: The student will be able to:

  • explain the periodicity of the periodic table;
  • describe various trends that occur both horizontally and vertically through the table;
  • use the software to manipulate the table and draw conclusions based on their observations.

Chemistry students can use Kalzium to explore the periodic table, to investigate chemical equations, to graph elemental data, to visualize molecular structure, and as a reference. Here’s a video showing everything the program can do:

The following lesson was developed by Jim Hutchinson and comes from

  1. Preface the activity with some discussion of the periodic table. Ideally, students will be somewhat familiar with the structure of atoms, the meaning of atomic weight, atomic number, etc.
  2. When introducing students to new software, it is beneficial to set aside time for students to explore the software on their own prior to beginning the activity. This would be most effective if it was a separate day. This could be an activity in and of itself with students being asked to make two or three “discoveries” and writing about them.
  3. The overall objective of this lesson is for students to use guided discovery to learn about the logic behind the periodic table and the properties of the elements.
  4. Use the attached handout (Open Office version) (MS Word version) as a guide for the lesson. Modify it accordingly if you want to split it over a couple days. Ideally, two shorter sessions may be more profitable than one longer session. Consider adding time for discussion or group collaboration between the two days and at the end.
  5. Conclude with a class discussion in which students share their observations and offer explanations

More Lesson Plans

Computer teachers who want to teach kids to program for Linux can find resources at

Mind mapping can be used in any subject to help students organize information. Both Labyrinth and Dia are open-source programs that help students create mind maps. For more information on how students can use mind maps within the classroom, check out the samples at

For lesson plans written specifically for teachers using Ubuntu (or to add your own), check out the Edubuntu wiki at

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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