How a computer repair program hatched the whiz kids of Wilson County

The Dell Student TechCrew groups have survived challenging times and provided support to over 700,000 students.

In the lingo of his farming town, Grant Irons has reached peak growing season.

Not long ago, the high school senior from Tennessee was, by his own description, self-conscious, shy and unsure about his future. He sometimes struggled to speak clearly to others and preferred being alone.

Then Irons joined the Dell Student TechCrew, where high school students learn to repair their peers’ computers. Just east of Nashville, Wilson County Schools implemented the program at five high schools, including Watertown High, where Irons attends. Across the district, 81 students have participated since 2019, earning industry certifications, class credits and marketable skills like how to pitch and market ideas.

Irons and his TechCrew classmates replaced cracked screens and mended busted keyboards. Then Irons branched out, landing an internship to fix devices at the local sheriff’s office. Soon, Irons, 17, was asked to livestream city council meetings and Watertown High football games. Along the way, he’s cultivated a true calling—and a newfound charisma. Since joining the group, Irons says, “I prefer to work with others. It’s more fun to have people to work with and communicate with.”

“Now,” adds his father, Jamie, “he walks into a room, and if it’s in his area of expertise—technology—he dominates the room. I’ve really noticed a huge change. It’s Christmas when you can find something you’re passionate about that you can turn into a career. He just amazes me with what he can do.”

An alliance

TechCrew is the latest chapter in a two-decade partnership between Dell Technologies and Wilson County Schools. The district spans 22 elementary, middle and high schools, encompassing 19,000 students. About half of those schools provide their students with Dell Chromebook 3100 laptops.

The Dell Student TechCrew launched in Wilson County, Tennessee, in 2019.

To date, 92 high schools from Rhode Island to California to as far away as Australia have added TechCrew to their curricula. Through the Dell program, about 1,500 students have earned industry certifications, empowering them to work on Dell products and provide tech support to some 700,000 classmates.

But what permeates most conversations about TechCrew are the tales of personal growth among its members—like Grant Irons’ evolution.

“There are just countless stories like that,” says Lucas Miller, a STEM teacher at Watertown High. “I’ve seen that with many students—students who went from kind of shy and timid to exuding that confidence.”

Accidental damage

In Wilson County’s TechCrew program, members typically work on Chromebook 3100s. The most common repairs involve devices damaged by students’ accidental drops and dings—mishaps that six years ago inspired the whole concept.

Accidental drops and dings keep the Wilson County Dell Student TechCrew in business.

It began with Kim Boutwell, today a Dell product manager but previously a middle school science teacher and technology program manager at a Texas school district. She foresaw a day when every student would receive a school laptop.

In 2015, her vision sparked a brainstorm: Train students how to repair those laptops at their schools. That notion, she says, was fueled by a simple truth: “Kids break things.”

One year later, Boutwell accepted a new job at Dell. Early in her new role, she successfully pitched her idea for TechCrew. By 2019, the program was being implemented in U.S. classrooms, launching first in Wilson County with Irons and his classmates.

As part of the curriculum, students work toward an industry certification that enables them to service laptops. They then learn the craft of computer repair by doing hands-on work.

When fellow students’ devices require a fix, they bring those to a designated spot in their school, like the library. TechCrew members take the laptops to their classroom, diagnose the problems and order new parts from Dell. Later, they install those parts and return the laptops to their users.

“That’s the first keystone of the program,” Boutwell says. “It’s 50% about technical skills. The other 50% is around the soft skills not typically taught in high school. Skills like not waiting for someone to tell you what to do but instead working to solve the problem.

“We’ve put together all the ingredients for student success. There’s such an opportunity for so many kids, especially kids who have been historically underserved,” Boutwell adds.

Surviving adversity

But following TechCrew’s launch in Wilson County, the initiative simply had to survive before it could thrive.

First, there was the tornado.

A tornado in spring 2020 closed schools in Wilson County—and the pandemic kept them closed.

Just after midnight on March 3, 2020, a massive storm carved through the county, unleashing spinning, 165-mph winds that killed three residents. In all, 170 structures there were destroyed, including two schools.

By morning, district administrators closed all Wilson County schools. The COVID-19 pandemic kept the schools shuttered for several more months.

“As a district, we persevered,” says Nina Williams, the digital learning coordinator for Wilson County Schools. “When you maintain moving forward, when you keep your vision of where you want to go, you overcome those hurdles one at a time and you do it together.

“We want to showcase that resilience to our students. Because as they go through life, they’re going to be faced with adversity, and you don’t just throw up your hand and say, ‘It didn’t work,’” Williams adds. “We have overcome.”

A surge in work

During the pandemic, Wilson County teachers and students adopted remote learning. But because many students had been outfitted with Chromebook 3100s, the transition was relatively swift—with a lot of help from the TechCrew, students say.

The young repair team faced a sudden influx of broken devices, Grant Irons recalls. The group quickly expanded its system for ordering replacement parts from Dell. (Program members in Wilson County received permission to work on the devices at school, so long as they followed health and safety precautions.)

Grant Irons found his footing—and his passion—on the Wilson County Schools Dell Student TechCrew.

“A great team,” Irons says. “All of us working together as much as we possibly could, pushing out as many computers as we could, having good systems in place to be able to coordinate bringing in computers, getting the computers sent back out and just making sure that everything was in constant order throughout the whole ordeal.”

“TechCrew,” Williams says, “saved the day.”

In August 2020, Wilson County classrooms re-opened. The students in TechCrew never missed a beat, quickly rolling out more repairs. And perhaps, gaining a bigger view of the world.

“What TechCrew has been able to do is really broaden their vision,” Williams says. “Not necessarily to get them to leave their community, but it’s opened their eyes to the possibilities of what they can do globally.”

School districts seeking to incorporate the program start by having a school staff member or an adult from the community participate in a virtual training with Dell. Once that is complete, they guide the students through the program. Any student between the ages of 13 and 18 can participate.

“Our students are seeing themselves for the first time—having not only a vision, but a purpose,” Williams says. “It has opened a window to the opportunities before them.”

All photos courtesy of Brave New Pictures