FLORISSANT, Mo. (AP) -- Students at North Technical High School are talking about system boot ups and crashing hard drives. They wear matching polo shirts.
Laura Moser, a Florissant resident, is listening to North senior Sandi Bowers, 17, as she carefully explains the reinstallation of a hard drive on the woman's laptop, taking it from dust collector to working machine once again.
"So, now I have another laptop," Moser says happily when Bowers is finished.
Her computer sat under a bed for two years after she tried unsuccessfully to get the problem fixed at a store. Moser eventually bought another computer.
But then she saw an ad on one of the community access television stations about a free computer service help desk run by students at North Tech High School, part of the Special School District of St. Louis County. The school has about 1,200 students studying various career and technical fields.
The program teaches students customer service and technical skills as they repair computers on site free of charge. Anyone in the St. Louis area can call the students with computer or printer problems through the help desk set up in their classroom. If the issue cannot be resolved over the phone, "customers" can bring their equipment to the school and the students will attempt to determine the problem and fix it.
"They take this very seriously, and have a lot of pride about being in the class," teacher Jim Elkins said, referring to the Cisco Networking Academy shirts the students wear. "The class gets to learn, and we're providing a valuable service to the community. It's very rewarding to see the customers and give them their PC. We've gotten hugs, Snickers, cupcakes."
Elkins was among the St. Louis-area teachers who won an Emerson Excellence in Teaching Gold Star grant last spring. Elkins used $2,500 in grant money for the program at North Tech for the Cisco Networking Academy students who are studying computers. Cisco partners with schools, universities, businesses, nonprofits and government organizations in its program to develop information technology skills in students.
In total, there are 36 juniors and seniors who work at the help desk at North Tech, with the seniors taking on the bulk of the work. It had been running informally for the past few years, Elkins said.
"It's fun to me," Bowers said. "I've been a computer person ever since I could check e-mail. I never thought I'd be smart enough to do this, but I know more of what I'm doing now."
The students get training in computer repair and maintenance through their curriculum at North Tech, but many entry-level computer jobs involve help desk activities, he said. Through the community help desk, the students are gaining experience in real-world skills they'll need in the workplace, such as explaining technical terms to a customer and troubleshooting.
They fill out work reports for each customer on each job and get practice at tracking and documenting computer repairs. The students also refurbish used computers and give them to other area students who cannot afford them.
The experience can help the students get a well-paying, part-time job while attending college, Elkins said.
Some of the students admit they were a little intimidated when faced with answering a call from the public and not knowing what problem was on the other end.
"It kind of helps and equips you going from one problem to the next," said Monet Bell, 17, who says she's been interested in computers since she was 5 years old, when she first took one apart. "This is something I'd like to do (for a career), and I've figured I'd get some good experience."
Not all of the computers that come in can be fixed, but community members are happy to have the help desk, especially in this tough economy.
"If I can help someone learn and get a free service, it doesn't get any better than that," Moser said.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)