My STEP project was building a custom PC. This consists of research, what parts are needed and what parts to pick, and assembly, putting the computer together.
A big part of software and computer science is abstraction, we separate different layers of operation so we don’t have to worry about all the small details that build up to even just a letter on a screen. As a consequence I think that for many computer science majors, including myself, we are often wrestling with how much we don’t know and how much we don’t need to know. Especially how much we don’t know about hardware, which is essential for us to do what we do. For me, I hoped building this computer would fill a gap in my knowledge.
But rather than technical knowledge, I think what I gained most through this experience is learning how capable I am. The reason why I did not build a computer prior to this project was that I was afraid that I wouldn’t learn anything. Even if I succeeded in putting a computer together, I worried that I would not learn any of the things I wanted to learn, and investing more than $1000 when my computing needs do not exceed my laptops abilities was a high wall to get over. WIth STEP funds I was able to lower the barrier to entry, and when I started I found that I could very easily understand the information and instruction I needed. In the end, a project I had put off for years for fear of its difficulty took me less than one week.
Most of my research for this build was done reading articles and reviews on the internet, but there were two people that were a big part of this project.
The first is my father, who has always believed in my learning and building skills. During my first year of college, when I went to any event that touched on female engineers, the same question kept popping up. “Raise your hand if as a child, you were not encouraged to tinker.” I think this stuck with me, first because of its strange wording, but also because I was one of the few women who did not raise their hand. My father has always encouraged me to do the handy-work that I liked. From origami, sculpture, putting together furniture, fixing washing machines, building catapults, replacing electronic screens, my father always believed in my skills. I never thought too much about it until I kept hearing that question.
My father’s knowledge and encouragement, throughout my entire life as well as during this project, really pushed me to finally build this PC.
Another person who helped me during this project, was my adviser, Dr. Bibyk. Dr. Bibyk has been a great mentor in many different parts of my education, but in particular, something that he helped me with for this project has left a lasting impression on me. When I was submitting my proposal, I realized I had accidentally submitted it later that the deadline my assigned STEP adviser had stated. When I mentioned this to Dr. BIbyk he reached out to my first adviser and asked for her to consider my proposal. The fact that Dr. BIbyk was willing to vouch for me, was really validating. It made me feel like my want to build this computer was not fruitless, that it would contribute to my education. Knowing that Dr. Bibyk is supporting all kinds of builds helps take away any doubt that having actual experience, rather than just reading about how to build a computer, was really important.
I definitely learned a lot about computers during this build, at the same time I can’t say I made the best choices for my PC components. I don’t plan on building a PC again, but I am thinking about all the things I can do with my computer and how I can leverage what features it does have and learn more that way. Going through this experience gives me a feeling of credibility and has helped me realize being able to teach yourself and navigate is the most important skill to have. It helped me be more comfortable with the idea of not-knowing.
One final thought that comes to mind to me is the history of the personal computer. The PC was heavily marketed towards men, and eventually that manifested into a lot of the gender imbalance we see in computer science. I think finally having built my own custom PC is a poetic way to say that I am still here, and prove to myself that I belong.