These High Schoolers Are Getting Resourceful with Their Broken Phones

In New York City, a student at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School (ECFS) stuck his head through the doorframe and gave Jeannie Crowley, the school’s Director of Technology, an inquisitive look. “I heard you guys are fixing phones,” the student said. “No,” Crowley replied. “You’re fixing the phone—but we provide parts and support.”

The student’s face lit up. “Really? I’ve always wanted to be able to do that,” he said. “But I’ve been too nervous to do it on my own.”

He’s not alone. Our phones are practically extensions of our bodies. We use them every day. We know their quirks. We speak their language. The up-and-coming generation, which literally cut its teeth in the Internet age, is positioned to be the most tech literate generation ever. And yet even the tech savviest high schooler might never open up a smartphone. Let alone repair it.

“[Students] have the interest but were generally nervous about taking on a repair without an experienced person with them,” Crowley explained. “We stepped in and solved that problem with the Restart Center”—a brand new student-led repair center serving high schoolers on the ECFS campus.

ECFS’s Restart Center was inspired by a London-based repair advocacy organization: the Restart Project. Across the pond, the Restart Project is an incredibly passionate advocate for reuse and repair. Staffed by volunteer tinkerers (or Restarters), the Restart Project hosts “Restart Parties” in the UK and around the world—helping owners troubleshoot and fix broken devices.

Inspiring repair quote at the restart center and restart project
Image courtesy of The Restart Center and The Restart Project.

Crowley came across the Restart Project at a conference in the UK. It struck a chord. And she thought a similar program would be a good fit for ECFS. The NYC school treats sustainability as an ethical imperative. To that end, the IT department works to extend product lifetimes and to buy sustainable, repairable tech. What better way to exemplify those principles than teaching students how to repair their own devices? So, IT staff partnered with the Restart Project, found funding, and the campus Restart Center was born.

“Schools produce a huge amount of electronic waste, so it’s something that both the Restart Project and ECFS are eager to tackle,” Crowley explained.

It’s a great idea. A Restart Center right on campus would empower students to take control of the technology in their lives—giving them tools to confront broken devices with confidence. Which is why the students participate in all aspects of the device’s repair.

“It’s not a repair center, it’s an educational center,” Crowley emphasized.

The Restart Center is staffed by 8 student volunteers with “experience fixing their own devices and a willingness to branch out into new repairs,” Crowley explained. Three people are present for every single repair: a student repair tutor, the owner of the device, and an IT department staff member (there to help with some of the trickier parts of the repair). After a troubleshooting session, the student learns how to fix their broken device.

Broken phones being repaired at the restart center
A student swaps a broken screen with a little help from repair tutors at the Restart Center. This image and our header image are both courtesy of Jeannie Crowley.

Gadget repair might seem too complicated, too dangerous, or too delicate for high school students. But not so, says Crowley.

“Once the students open up the phone for the first time and see all of the components, it really helps them understand that broken isn’t a binary state (totally broken or totally fixed) and that even mistakes they make during the repair process can be fixed,” Crowley explained.

In the first two weeks, the student repair center fixed six devices—and they’re just getting started. The crew has a long list of students to help after holiday break.

I’m about to wax poetic—but I get really excited when I see younger people involved in repair. We tend to think of tinkering as something that took place in the past—something quaint our grandparents did in wooden sheds and rustic workshops. These days, the urge to upgrade often supersedes the desire to fix. But a knee-jerk impulse to upgrade is an acquiescence to the most passive form of consumerism. Teaching students how to repair rewires the relationship that they have with their things. It makes them a participant in stuff, instead of just a consumer of stuff.

“I think it’s important for students to understand that their purchases, and their participation in this upgrade cycle, allow companies to get away with terrible design of disposable devices,” Crowley explains. “Not only should they learn how to repair their own devices as a way to opt out of the upgrade cycle, but they should learn how to demand that devices be repairable by design. If enough members of this generation support products that are repairable, not disposable, that buying power will make a difference.”

Opening up a device and repairing it gives students a different perspective. Once, a student was salvaging parts from a phone—tunneling through the device and removing pieces one by one. Until he couldn’t pull out any more pieces. The rest were glued down. The student was surprised. “How are we supposed to be able to repair this? Why didn’t they think of this before using glue? Do we just throw the rest away?” the student asked Crowley.

Crowley was pleased. The student got it.

“It was a really beautiful moment where the student, through repair, spontaneously made the connection between design choices, repair, and sustainability.”