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Educator helps computer repair students learn by doing

January 30, 2023
Brad Chamberlain's students operate a thriving school-based computer repair business.

The technological dominance of the United States is not because of raw genius alone. There are thousands of brilliant minds born every year in China, India, and around the globe. U.S. technology is (arguably) the best in the world because of creativity, a willingness to experiment, and the choice to take risks lead to breakthroughs.

The titans of American technology were not merely brilliant, they were creative, outside-the-box thinkers imagining things no one else did. Bill Gates was a gifted programmer — but also a visionary with far-reaching insights. Steve Jobs was a passable technologist who pushed himself to become a world-class communicator and marketer.

This American tradition of pushing the envelope to discover ever better ways to do things continues in Maricopa, Ariz., with Brad Chamberlain, the computer networking and computer repair instructor for Maricopa High School. During a teaching career that spans almost three decades, Chamberlain has identified flaws in how schools were teaching technology and, in a stunning act of creativity, may have transformed the game forever.

It's difficult to criticize Chamberlain's style. His results speak for themselves. Since 2015 his students have

• Earned more than 250 certifications
• Won 17 gold medals in the Arizona State Skills USA competitions
• Won two gold and one bronze medal in SkillsUSA Nationals in the past three years
• Won two state championships in the prestigious CyberPatriot competition in the school's first three years of participation

Chamberlain's genius is in looking at how a corporation functions and merging that blueprint with a creative approach to education. "I really don't teach," he explained. "I'm just the guide that the kids can ask for directions as they learn the things they want to."

The philosophy behind Chamberlain's teaching style is simple. "We learn the most when we are doing."

Chamberlain believes students learn quicker and more deeply when they must understand the reason why they need to know a particular piece of knowledge. "Learning must have a very specific and immediate purpose in order to become real to us," he said, "and I have found that this usually happens when we are working and trying to complete a specific task.

"Unfortunately, school isn't built that way as students are so often taught subjects that lack immediate relevance in their day-to-day lives. So many times, we are told, 'You will need this down the road,' and we quickly dismiss it only to arrive at that point in the road, where we realize, 'Ahh, that's what Mr. Chamberlain was talking about all those years ago.' "

Cheesehead at heart

Chamberlain's story begins far to the north of his present stomping grounds in the chilly climes of Wisconsin. He enjoyed running as a youth and, after high school, enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in hopes of making the track team. "I had no idea what I wanted to do. I went to college just so I could run track. Not the best way to pick a school, I guess," he said with a laugh.

Chamberlain made the team — and more. A three-time Division III All-American at La Crosse, he ran the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter races. As the lead-off runner for the 4x400 squad, he helped his team capture that national title for the division during his junior year with a time of 3:13. Despite the apparent disadvantage of being just 5-feet 8-inches tall, he was ranked 2nd nationally in the 400-meter hurdles.

Chamberlain graduated with a degree in physical education and, for a time, coached track and field at a nearby high school. In the process, he realized what he wanted to do in life: "I really enjoyed teaching and coaching and decided that I was gonna teach PE."

As if fate were pranking Chamberlain, his first teaching job was in San Luis, Ariz., right on the border with Mexico, where temperatures were slightly warmer than Wisconsin. "My first day, I was teaching PE outside and it was 115 degrees. The kids were used to it, but I realized I needed to find an indoor job, fast," he explained.

Do-it-all educator

Brad Chamberlain's students operate a thriving school-based computer repair business.

Chamberlain eventually got an indoor job and, over the next 15 years, he utilized his tech skills to teach computers in the classroom and to serve as director of technology for two different school districts. He landed at Maricopa High School in 2011 and, when the CTE director asked him to teach a class on computer maintenance, willingly accepted the opportunity.

"I had researched CTE and wanted to get a CTE position; I jumped at the opportunity," said Chamberlain.

A high-energy type, within a year Chamberlain was hip-deep in school happenings. He was in charge of the broadcasting and journalism program. "It was a riot," he said. "The daily announcements were really fun." On top of that, he supervised the school newspaper and yearbook, served as the head track coach, and ran the entire IT program.

Even the strongest teachers grow tired and eventually the added responsibilities begin to wear on Chamberlain. By 2014, he was considering quitting teaching. "It was a flashpoint in my career," he explained.

His principal advised him to stop trying to do so much and instead focus on one program. He heeded the advice and, at years' end, gave up coaching and the film and TV program. He now had a new problem, however — keeping enough students enrolled in his programs to justify his position.

His current students solved the problem. They were finishing up the first year of the IT program, which was a computer maintenance course, and had no desire to move onto the next phase, computer networking. "They didn't want to do networking," explained Chamberlain. "Instead they wanted to keep doing what they were learning, but at an advanced level."

24PinTech

Chamberlain researched possibilities and settled on creating a new course, Computer Maintenance II. It was not going to be a typical continuation of the subject matter, however — it would be an actual IT shop with the students troubleshooting and repairing devices for others. "It's like I said, 'We learn the most when we're doing.' And the students were gonna be doing a lot."

The students thought it a great idea and, at Chamberlain's insistence, wrote a business plan detailing what they would be doing in the course. They named their operation 24PinTech, after the connecting adapters on a motherboard.

"I can't take much credit for the idea: it was the students. Just the right kids came through the program at the right time," explained Chamberlain. "I was just smart enough to recognize (what was happening)."

24PinTech advertised their operation to teachers and students and in a short time were busily repairing computers, phones, controllers, and gaming consoles — all free of charge. If new components were needed to complete a repair job, the kids would recommend a brand and a place to make a purchase for a fair price.

The students' work was top-notch and before long 24PinTech was providing services to the community, other schools, and even the district. They are also a recycling partner of AZStRUT, a nonprofit that refurbishes used tech devices and donates them to schools and other nonprofits.

"Strut just dropped off 200 laptops for us to make sure they're in working order," Chamberlain said. "The kids are poring over them in an assembly line fashion, making sure each machine POSTS, charging batteries, making sure they have hard drives and anything else to function, and then installing a selected operating system."

Business model, business results

Brad Chamberlain's students operate a thriving school-based computer repair business.

Although the work is performed entirely by teenagers, 24PinTech's operations are anything but amateurish. It runs with an efficiency and effectiveness that would be the envy of any for-profit business. "There is no goofing off," said Chamberlain. "This is a workplace with policies and procedures."

Chamberlain runs 24PinTech like a business with him as the CEO (some kids jokingly refer to him as the "Digital Deity") and students are held to a level of professionalism in their work, behavior, communication with others, and especially project documentation.

"Each step of every project is thoroughly and accurately documented," said Chamberlain, "from the moment an order ticket is submitted through a refurbished kiosk outside the classroom, all the way until the project is out the door."

The workflow is also businesslike. Students are required to submit weekly one-page typed reports on their work projects. These reports keep Chamberlain aware of students' progress and reveal bottlenecks and breakthroughs.

Students thrive in 24PinTech and because they are eager to learn, Chamberlain is free to help when needed and look for new projects. "I hardly do any teaching," he explained. "I just let them know that this is how the real world is and to get used to it."

By taking ownership of their assigned projects, the students improve their IT skills at an accelerated rate, along with their ability to communicate as they often share ideas and suggestions among themselves. The pride they feel in what they are accomplishing causes many students to come to the classroom before school and during their free time to work on projects.

"I can't keep these kids out of my room, they're having so much fun learning new stuff," said Chamberlain.

Current student, Abi Gindiri says Chamberlain is an "awesome teacher," and thinks it's clear why students like being in his classroom. "You walk through his door, and you feel right at home. He lets you loose and there is nothing you can't do!"

24PinTech times two

Like a good CEO, Chamberlain demands that there be no duplication of effort in the class. "We don't reinvent the wheel here," he emphasized. "I teach the kids how to do research. So if they are handed a project they don't know how to do, they research it online because everything has been done before. The answer is out there, they just gotta go find it."

An up-to-date webpage helps students who find themselves assigned to a project that they've not done before. The page contains every project completed to date by the 24PinTech team, along with instructions to follow in the repair process. All a student needs to do is open the page, find the project listing, and read.

So many students clamor to join 24PinTech that Chamberlain runs programs in two different class periods. "It's good for them because they know they're doing real-life stuff," he said. "The different classes even compete with each other and, just like departments (at a real corporation), the managers of both programs have to learn to communicate between themselves effectively."

The results of the 24PinTech instruction model have been so effective that not only are students winning state and national awards, but the classroom frequently entertains visitors, including members of Congress who come to observe. When a visitor arrives, Chamberlain makes introductions, and the students take over explaining how the program runs and what projects they are working on. "The kids know so much that all I do is stand back and watch," he said.

Students who participate in the program are known for their maturity. Unlike many teens possessing advanced IT abilities, none have used their skills to go off the reservation and cause trouble by hacking into an unauthorized network. "They know I trust them, and they don't abuse that trust — although they occasionally play innocent jokes on each other," explained Chamberlain.

Another proof of 24PinTech's impact on student learning has come from a local chain of repair shops. When Chamberlain originally approached them about internships for students, he was told, "We don't hire students." The chain has since called back asking to hire Chamberlain's students and even to use 24PinTech as a feeder program for their business.

As good as the program and the students are, Chamberlain admits that none of it would be possible without support from school administration. He said that without support from administration, "I'd have moved on long ago. They're really great. They give me the money and support I need to do the job and then they leave me alone to do it."

"Chamberlain is always willing to take risks with the work his students complete," said Assistant Principal and CTE Director Emily Maxwell. "I know errors can occur, but I trust him and his students 100 percent."

Foosball and family

Brad Chamberlain's students operate a thriving school-based computer repair business.

As so often happens in life, our plans don't always go as expected. Chamberlain didn't originally plan on making Arizona his home. "When I left for San Luis, I told my family I'd be gone for a few years and then come home. My uncle teased me and said, 'Nope, you'll meet a beautiful senorita and never come back.' "

During Chamberlain's second year at San Luis, he did meet his match — her name is Marla. "She was the new kindergarten teacher at school, and we have been together now for 27 happy years," he said.

The Chamberlains raised three children and are currently blessed with three grandchildren. Family is very important to Chamberlain; he spends as much time with them as possible and even coaches his grandson's flag football team.

Besides school, the only time Chamberlain is away from family is on Friday evenings when he frequents a local sports bar, Boulders on Broadway. He doesn't go to watch a game, he's there to dominate one — Chamberlain is a master-level foosball player. He can hold his own with most players, even the pros. Last year he and his partner, Eric Borkovec, captured second place in the amateur division at the Hall of Fame Tournament in Las Vegas.

He enjoys the game so much that when he travels to conferences, he looks up local establishments with foosball tables in them. Chamberlain said his best performance ever was playing super-doubles with a friend. "We were against two pros, I played upfront, and we steamrolled those guys! Absolutely crushed them! I was unstoppable!"

It's obvious that Chamberlain likes to win. Whether it be at foosball or in the classroom, he is going to give it everything he has to come out on top. That attitude is opening plenty of career opportunities for his students. And he doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon.

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