High-Tech Buzz: Colorado State Engineering Students Fund, Design Â??smart’ Lab Combining Newest Technology and Coffee-Bar Ambiance

Last spring, students enrolled in Colorado State University’s College of Engineering began discussing plans to create the university’s most unique computer lab. The school’s students also wanted to establish a relaxed environment where they could meet to work on assignments, discuss projects and have a cup of coffee between classes. The result is the innovative, student-designed Internet Café, an ideal blend of high-tech engineering functionality and laid-back, coffee-bar atmosphere.

The Internet Café’s grand opening will take place Oct. 3 from 1-3 p.m. in Room A104 of the Engineering Building on Colorado State’s main campus.

"This type of student facility is quite unique for a university," said Neal Gallagher, dean of the engineering college. "The café houses the latest and greatest Sun technology designed to enhance the educational achievement of our undergraduate and graduate students. Most impressive, however, is that the café was conceptualized, designed and predominantly funded by students, for students."

The Internet café, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, houses 25 of the most advanced commercially available computer workstations. With support from a $125,000 Sun Microsystems classroom grant, the workstations all operate on advanced Sunray thin client technology. Providing simultaneous access to both UNIX and Windows software, the Sunrays connect students to an eight-processor Sun server and 10 Dell computers. As a result, students are able to use the operating system and software that makes the most sense for the task at hand, across platforms, all on the same workstation.

"The idea was to create a facility that meets the needs of all engineering students, regardless of their year of study or area of focus," said David Wiegandt, doctoral candidate and chair of the Engineering Student Technology Committee. "Department leadership really became excited about the project, and it ended as a great collaboration among students and faculty across disciplines. We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the students."

In keeping with using only the most advanced technology, the Sunrays are equipped with Smart Card readers. Smart Cards are driver’s license-sized data cards that contain a student’s session information on an embedded computer chip. The card can be inserted in any Sunray and the individual’s work is immediately accessible. A student can be working on one station, pull the card out, walk across the room, insert the card into another reader and have the work come immediately to the screen. Or, a student can begin running a long program, pull the card, go to class, come back a few hours later and access the completed program.

With this technology, students do not need to log out of the Sunray or stop in the middle of a job, with the added benefit of freeing up workstations for other students while long-running programs continue to execute on the server.

All café workstations are linked to the college’s computer network, meaning that students in the new facility can access programs residing in any other engineering lab on campus. Students may also print to any college printer from the café. Each workstation is fitted with a 19-inch flat screen monitor and the entire system is linked to the university’s high-bandwidth Internet connection. In addition, the café is a wireless facility, allowing students who have wireless-ready laptops to access the college’s computer network anywhere inside the café without having to plug into a port.

The new facility also contains an advanced conference room with a computerized LCD projection system, laptop ports and a computer workstation installed under the glass of the conference table. In the main café area, two additional six-person tables are available for collaborative projects; both tables also include inlaid computer workstations and laptop ports.

"The Internet Café not only utilizes the best of today’s technology but was also designed to address the needs of the future," said Mark Ritschard, director of the college’s network services.

The café, decorated in a 50s theme with neon clocks, an antique payphone and soda-fountain style bar stools, contains snack, coffee and soft drink vending machines. The facility also houses a restaurant-style counter and includes spaces and storage facilities to allow student organizations in the college to store and sell goods for their fund-raising efforts.

The Internet Café is a project of the Engineering Student Technology Committee and primarily paid for by the student charge for technology. Based on college-wide student input and approval, the committee approved plans for the Internet Café in April 2002. Students then met with department chairs and the college dean to acquire additional support.

The college provided space for the Internet Café in the Engineering Building on Colorado State’s main campus. A gift from the Rex and Joan Sjostrom family of Castlerock, Colo., allowed for renovation of the facility. Rex Sjostrom and his four children are Colorado State alumni, all but one graduating from the College of Engineering.