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Grant Looks at Computer Access Issues

Engineering requires computers more than any other profession, yet at UW-Madison the College of Engineering has the smallest percentage of students who own PCs. That's due in part to the college's Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) Center, which provides students free use of its terminals.

However, as more and more professors require that papers and lab reports be produced with word processing software, it's often difficult for students to find available machines in CAE labs, says Associate Professor James P. Blanchard of the Department of Engineering Physics. "We see this trend continuing."

Now, thanks to part of a $500,000 grant from Hewlett-Packard, Blanchard is examining possible ways of providing students greater access to computers. Hewlett-Packard has donated 12 powerful laptop units with lots of memory, and six infrared ethernet access boxes that provide a "wireless" link to the network. The equipment is being used this semester by the 10 juniors and seniors in Blanchard's Engineering Problem Solving 2 course (NE (NEEP) 602).

Student with laptop

Laptop computers, which students take home and use for other courses, have been a hit this semester with Associate Professor James (Jake) P. Blanchard's NE (NEEP) 602 class. (large image)

While Blanchard's students have always used computers in class, the difference this time is that they can take the laptops home and use them for other courses. "By giving students another source to use for their papers, it frees up CAE resources for more high-end stuff," he says.

When the students want to use the laptops to access e-mail or do research on the Internet, they take their portable machines to one of the ethernet access boxes that have been set up in several locations on campus. By simply aiming an eye on the back of the computer at the access box, the unit becomes linked to the network. "We're still exploring the most convenient way for students to access the network, and finding the locations that will be most convenient," says Blanchard. He's ordered modems for students who don't have ready access to the boxes.

To avoid an excess of students competing for limited spots in the class, Blanchard did not announce ahead of time that this course would be using the laptops. In fact, his students didn't learn about the portable computers until the second week of the semester. "We began discussing computer availability issues," explains Blanchard. "One student suggested, 'What if we all had our own computers?' That's when I told them that they would."

While the trial program is off to a good start, it may be a long time before take-home laptops are common issue in engineering courses. Blanchard stresses that this is an experiment made possible by the grant. Throughout the course, the students are being surveyed for their reactions. Additionally, when the class is over, Blanchard will use a software program to find out just how much the laptops were used and which applications were most popular.

How the laptops will be used in the future will be determined on a semester-by-semester basis, says Blanchard. "There are lots of essential issues to examine through this grant."

Note: The Hewlett-Packard grant is shared by UW-Madison, the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois. "Each university took its own niche," says Blanchard. CAE director Michael Redmond is also involved in this and other Hewlett-Packard grants for instructional technology development, including digital video delivery systems.