Class project may cut wireless technology loose on campus

Elaine Helm

If future Northwestern students suddenly find that laptop computers are required for every class, they will know whom to thank – or blame.

Administrators have implemented many of the final projects from Prof. Charles Thompson’s Systems Project Management class, including the degree auditing program, indoor tennis facility and WildCARD system. On Thursday, class members rehearsed their presentation for a wireless campus and mandatory laptop program.

Although Norris University Center and Searle Student Health Service recently added wireless connections, the “Campus Without Wires” project recommends adding connections in every classroom and public spaces, possibly including the Lakefill and dorm lounges.

A wireless campus would allow the university to improve its image with prospective students, said presenter Robert Fiely, a McCormick senior. NU ranked 64th on a list of America’s most wired colleges released by Yahoo!

The class outlined the advantages of a wireless network and laptop program, which if adopted would eventually require all incoming students to purchase a laptop computer for personal and classroom use. The computer’s cost would figure into the total cost of attending NU, so financial aid would cover the additional item.

“Through our research, we determined that a laptop program helps best utilize a wireless network,” said class member Bob Dess, a McCormick senior.

The class cited Wake Forest and Carnegie Mellon universities and Dartmouth College as schools that have successfully implemented campuswide wireless programs. Wake Forest requires students to purchase laptops, as does the Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

The wireless network would not replace the existing campus network, class members said, because wireless connections do not support large file downloads and the plan does not include wireless capabilities in dorm rooms.

Project leaders said the cost of implementing the wireless network and laptop program would vary based on how comprehensive the administration decides to make it. A full-scale implementation would require about 1,000 access nodes, which cost approximately $1,200 each, for both the Evanston and Chicago campuses, they said. Wireless cards for individual laptops cost $100 to $300 and laptops with configurations meeting recommended standards cost $2,000 to $2,500.

Students chose this topic because a wireless campus would allow more flexible computer usage, they said. Implementation would provide a variety of benefits such as freeing up computer lab space, streamlining Information Technology support services and allowing professors and students to work together on computers in class.

The presentation to administrators will be at 4 p.m. on Thursday in Harris 107.

Thompson said he enjoys exposing students to the problem-solving process that he considers the essence of real science.

“I can give lectures to do this and this, and the brightest students will remember. But if I push them off the pier and into the cold water, they’ll learn how to swim,” Thompson said.

That the university has adopted so many of his class’ ideas is not surprising, Thompson said, because his students can research and design feasible projects that would cost NU thousands of dollars with an outside consulting firm.

“The point is, 55 people working as an effective systems team can do an incredible job,” Thompson said.

McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science requires seniors in the industrial engineering program to complete two quarters of either systems project management or industrial engineering design. Prof. Thompson began teaching systems project management in 1972.

In February, Thompson and members of his 1996 class reunited to attend the opening of the Combe Tennis Center at the Sports Pavilion and Aquatics Center. Paul Torricelli, men’s tennis coach, said Thompson’s students provided a unique service to the university when they designed an early plan for the indoor tennis facility.