Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. At San Diego State University’s College of Engineering, the need—more computers in its labs for a growing number of students—has spawned a solution that could potentially change the way students live, work and learn.
By rebuilding its existing web server infrastructure to support a virtual computing lab, many of the software programs used every day by students in each of the four engineering disciplines at SDSU can be accessed by students and faculty wherever they are, and on virtually any personal mobile device they choose, including iPads and smart phones.
Early stages of innovation
Currently in its pilot stage, the program supports 350 students in six classes, with Microsoft Office, Matlab, ArcGIS, ProEngineer, Solid Works, AutoCad 2010, Cadence, Xilinx and SureTrak. The hope is that the program will expand to eventually provide all of the engineering design and simulation software packages, freeing up valuable computer lab space and time.
“Sometimes they have classes in the labs at five, six and seven o’clock,” said Shivkumar Somasundaram, a graduate student studying electrical engineering who is part of the pilot program. “We used to have to wait until classes were over to work in the computer labs. Now, I can just do my work at home.”
More and more, open lab time has been reduced because of increased instructional time, coupled with increased student enrollment in the College of Engineering. According to Darrell Irwin, resource manager for the college, the system was initially developed to support the delivery of engineering applications to student laptops, and other computers not in computer labs. The ability to use these applications on iPads and smart phones has only recently been discovered.
The software is still housed on the central server as always. But now, it can be accessed on such devices as iPhones and Android-enabled smart phones. And in some cases, programs, such as Matlab, will do complex calculations faster on the smart phones than on a laptop computer.
Students and faculty will help the program grow
“I had two students ask me homework questions regarding a problem they were having with ArcGIS and their data,” said Ed Beighley, who teaches civil engineering. “Within 10 seconds, I could see the problem and fix their project via their smart phone.”
Beighley said he doesn’t believe smart phones and mobile devices will completely replace the use of computers by engineering students. But, this enhanced technology allows students to now purchase a relatively modest computer, laptop, Netbook or even iPad and still run intense software applications that require significant computing resources. And, the ability to display work on a mobile phone makes it that much easier to discuss and resolve issues.
The college is looking to its faculty and students to test the functionality of the applications on the devices to determine next steps, best practices and unique innovations that can be created with the devices.
A game changer for education
While some universities are giving iPads to all of their students, SDSU’s College of Engineering believes that making the software students use more accessible is a game changer.
“It opens up the entire educational package,” said Randall German, associate dean of the College of Engineering. “It makes education more accessible and more flexible. Now students who have childcare issues or have to be at a job, can do their work on their own time, rather than waiting in line for a computer in the lab. It really opens up opportunities for a new kind of student.”
German said the labs will remain a valuable resource to any student who wants to use them, or who doesn’t have a personal mobile device. But the added flexibility gives students more options.