Montessori students build computer by scratch

Teacher says project gives students an idea of ‘what it’s like to be in engineering’
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Max Freels and Michael Binon are building a computer by scratch.

On a recent afternoon, the two students at Granite Bay Montessori — Freels is in seventh grade and Binon is in eighth — work hunched over a desk, carefully soldering components onto a plain green circuit board.

When other kids in the sixth through eighth grade class have spare time, they help, too. The project is part of the computer science curriculum taught by teacher Brian Lloyd.

“I try to give them a broad-spectrum view of science and engineering, as well as real things to work on to get an idea of what it’s like to be in engineering,” Lloyd says.

The students work on a PDP-8 computer, which was originally built by Digital Equipment Corporation.

“The best thing to learn is the earliest computer, the PDP-8, the very first personal computer ever from the 1960s that you put on a desk,” Lloyd says. “By today’s standards, a calculator is more powerful. But back then this (technology) was revolutionary. To buy a box and put it on a desk it had to be small and simple, which makes it good for teaching because it is so simple.”

Projects such as this provide hands-on experience for students, which is often missing in public schools, he says. This sort of multi-sensory teaching approach used by Montessori schools helps cement abstract lessons into students’ brains.

“It used to be students sit at a desk and the teacher writes on the board,” Lloyd says. “Well, not everybody learns that way.”

Maria Montessori was an educator and doctor in Italy in the early 1900s. She passed away in 1952, leaving behind a philosophy of education now used throughout the world.

Her teaching concepts faded for some time but made a resurgence in the 1980s. An important component of the Montessori approach is the emphasis on self-directed learning activities and multi-sensory learning, which provides students with an intrinsic understanding of how something works — say, geometry — before they get to the abstract concepts.

Lloyd began teaching at Granite Bay Montessori five years ago, after meeting Director Teri Brown. He was a “Silicon Valley computer type guy” who was in-between start-ups and wanted to try something different.

About 160 kids currently attend the school, which serves preschool, elementary and middle school students.

Brown says she started the school about 20 years to educate her own children, and they now teach there.

Sena Christian can be reached at