March 2, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 11

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    Crerar Library will soon house high-tech computer laboratory

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Crerar Library, the Division of the Biological Sciences and Networking Services & Information Technologies [main lab]are preparing to open the new USITE/Crerar Cluster, an innovative computer laboratory that may become a model for the next generation of computer labs. The first of its kind in the country, the USITE/Crerar Cluster will be up and running in the lower level of the John Crerar Library in April.

    The new lab was conceived to mirror the University’s academic practice of small-group interaction and collaborative research. It also was designed to provide user-friendly, total environments for individuals and groups rather than classroom labs with rows of identical computers and desks, which currently are the norm, said Chad Kainz, Director of Instructional Technology at NSIT.

    “The overall goal was to open teaching, learning and computer possibilities people have not been able to achieve on campus or have not even thought of before,” he said.

    The USITE/Crerar Cluster will feature workspaces that can be reconfigured in numerous ways to accommodate new needs as they arise. The lab will be equipped with more than 100 state-of-the-art machines, all with flat-panel monitors, in three separate areas.

    Users will be able to [crerar cafe]enjoy computing options usually restricted to research laboratories and selected special projects. The ability of users to collaborate on projects was fundamental to the lab’s design, said Kainz. “Students who were formerly forced to take their three laptops and gather around a table at Barnes & Noble will now have the best available setting and technology to work on projects together.”

    According to Kainz, the more than $1 million project is the result of a two-year cooperative effort between the Crerar Library, the Division of the Biological Sciences and NSIT to develop an environment that best matches the varied technology requirements of students, teachers and researchers in all University divisions.

    As a general, multi-use facility, the lab is intended for all members of the University community. The Harper Cluster currently serves 700 to 900 users per day, and developers of the USITE/Crerar Cluster anticipate that an equal or greater number of people will use the new lab, which will be comprised of three main sections––a Cyber-Café, a main cluster and an Advanced Computing and Collaboration Area.

    The Cyber-Café will be [crerar seminar]equipped with 18 flat-panel monitors intended for short-term computing activities, such as checking e-mail messages and Web browsing. The café itself will offer coffee, rolls and other food items.

    The USITE/Crerar main cluster will offer a broad range of work options. In clusters of no more than four machines per table, small groups will be able to work together back-to-back or around a table. The height of some computer tables will be adjustable from 1 to 4 feet and there will even be cushions for those who prefer to do their computing sitting on the floor. The lab also will be completely wheelchair accessible.

    A combination of various computers and operating systems will be available, with Windows NT, the Macintosh OS, Linux and Unix systems installed on computers throughout the lab, which can be output to any of three high-speed printers. The lab’s PCs will be compact, all-in-one machines, easily moved depending on a user’s needs, and a wall of Apple G4 computers, surrounded by large work surfaces for group projects, will be fully equipped with audiovisual capabilities and applications. A new high-speed, switched network with advanced networking capabilities will minimize bandwidth issues commonly encountered in facilities of this size.

    Focused on teaching and teamwork, the Advanced Computing and Collaboration Area will be separated from the main lab by a glass wall. It will be equipped with stereo data-projectors, movable whiteboards and a dedicated 10-machine advanced-graphics classroom, including hardware-based, 3D-graphics rendering and high-performance, workstation-class computer systems. Remote computation and display possibilities will be made possible by high-performance networking.

    The lab will be open during the Crerar Library’s regular hours.