UI College Of Engineering Thrives On 'Laptop Classroom'

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Most people are familiar with the portability of laptop computers. But what does it mean to attend class in a "laptop classroom"?

At the University of Iowa College of Engineering, it means that all of the students in a 72-student computer programming class have their own laptop computers -- low-cost computers that work only in one designated room. It also means that students are more focused and involved in their studies than ever before, thanks to a first-of-its kind use of technology in the classroom.

"The students are writing more computer programs in class and learning how to use the software right in class," says Gary Christensen, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. "I hardly have anyone coming to me for help during my office hours anymore because we answer most questions in class. Now the students needing the greatest amount of help get almost private tutoring when they come to my office."

Christensen points out that the laptop classroom benefits not only computer programming students but also students in other engineering classes, students in non-engineering disciplines, and even participants in a recent two-day medical imaging workshop.

"An exciting thing about the workshop was that there were very demanding computational, storage, networking and visualization requirements to present the material and the laptops and the new classroom networking were up to the challenge," he says.

Located in the Rose and Joseph B. Summers Electronic Classroom, the laptop classroom was conceived and completed in only 45 days -- just in time for the spring 2007 semester -- thanks to some quick work by Christensen and the college's Computer Systems Support (CSS) group, led by Director Doug Eltoft.

"The short time constraint to complete this project brought out the best in Computer System Support and Electronics Shop support staff who all worked in concert to get the classroom operational for Gary's first class" said Doug Eltoft, who acted as the project producer and director.

Christensen says the notion of the classroom was developed out of his classroom observations and in response to recommendations from his previous students.  After he saw how well students in a smaller class responded to using desktop computers in the Henry Computer Classroom during the previous semester, he successfully got the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to cover the $10,000 cost for networking and access control for the classroom. Eltoft committed $50,000 of student computer fee funds collected from engineering students to purchase 78 student laptops and two instructor laptops. SUSE Linux was selected as the operating system for two reasons: it is free and much easier to manage in this type of environment.

"The low cost will allow us to use a portion of the student computer fees to replace the laptops approximately every three years," he says.

Today, as students file into the laptop classroom, they approach a closet where computers are stored in neoprene cases and data and electrical cables are kept in separate plastic bags. At the beginning of class, they plug the computers into to outlets built into the desktops and enter the Engineering Computer Network. To reduce weight and eliminate battery problems, the laptops have had their batteries removed and run off of AC adapters.

The teaching environment is far different from computer programming classrooms of the past in which students passively watched an overhead projection of a lecture. Now the students and professor actively engage in discussions of programming techniques while simultaneously writing small programs on their individual computers.

"The students were here about 15 minutes before I was today!" says Christensen at the conclusion of one recent class. "You don't usually see that in any class." And then he offers a clue to student enthusiasm: "I'm trying to make them think first, not just sit down and type a program."

In addition to Christensen and Eltoft, those responsible for the success of the laptop classroom include College of Engineering Dean Barry Butler, Associate Dean Alec Scranton, Professor Jon Kuhl, CSS Systems Administrators Matt McLaughlin, Dan Mentzer and David Funk, CSS Secretary Sheila Britton, Teaching Assistants James Harris and Brandon Fitz, and Electronics Shop Engineers Jon Kostman and Tom Barnhart.