The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 15, 1999
Mar. 15, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 26


New Computers, Thanks to a Resourceful Student

By Phil Sneiderman
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Computer classes are among the most popular on the Homewood campus, but until recently, Hopkins' Department of Computer Science had no classroom of its own equipped for hands-on instruction in programming and use of courseware such as simulators. Instruction had to take place whenever a few computer classrooms elsewhere on campus were available.

"There was no way we could schedule all of the sections of our introductory classes and know that we would have machines available for all of our students," said Pierre Joseph, information systems manager in the Department of Computer Science.

Information systems manager Pierre Joseph and student Jacob Green wrote a proposal that led Microsoft to donate new computers for a classroom in the New Engineering Building.

Thanks to a resourceful engineering student and a donation from Microsoft, some relief has arrived. The department last month opened its own teaching lab equipped with 15 Dell Pentium work stations and one powerful server computer, capable of managing a network. The machines came with large monitors, plus many other important accessories and plenty of software.

The hardware, software and training for two Hopkins staff members were valued at $126,000, said Gerald Masson, chair of the department. The dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, has pledged to match the donation, doubling the number of computers in this classroom by the fall. Other gifts could eventually bring the total number of computers available to computer science students to 40 or 50, Masson said.

"This new classroom will permit the Computer Science faculty to utilize demanding software, including simulators and development tools, in courses at all levels," he said.

The teaching center is located in the New Engineering Building, where the Computer Science Department is based. In the evenings, when the room is not used for instruction, the machines can be used by students working on assignments and projects.

The new computer classroom has been on the department's unfulfilled wish list for several years. Last fall, a solution began to take shape.

Jacob Green, a 21-year-old senior majoring in computer science, had just completed a three-month summer internship at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. He also had agreed to serve as the Microsoft student liaison to the Computer Science Department at Hopkins. In this role, Green works with Computer Science faculty, staff and students to provide information about and access to Microsoft operating systems and tools.

Most university computer science programs, including Hopkins', do most of their work with an operating system called Unix. Microsoft uses students like Green at universities nationwide to promote interest in its Windows NT operating system and related software and to develop better integration with Unix.

While meeting with systems manager Joseph, Green learned that Hopkins' most urgent need was new machines on which to install the software. He knew that Microsoft, in a few cases, also donates computers, equipped with Windows NT, to universities.

"This is rare," Green explained. "Microsoft is a software company, not a hardware company. But on a very selective basis, it will donate personal computers. This has happened with fewer than 20 schools in the two years since the student consulting program was started."

Green and Joseph put together a proposal with the following provision: If Microsoft would donate computers for the new classroom, Hopkins would come up with an equal number. "This gave Hopkins an edge," Green said. "We would not have gotten the new computers if we hadn't offered matching equipment."

Joseph agreed. "Hopkins was in a very good position because there was an urgent need for these computers and a willingness by the Whiting School dean to be a partner in this project," he said.

The proposal was submitted in late November and approved by Microsoft the following month. The university quickly renovated a traditional classroom with new walls, lighting and power adjustments. It also added components to their security system to protect the equipment, which arrived in late January.

"Without Jacob, this could not have happened," Joseph said. "He was one of the key middlemen."

This "generous and timely donation" will allow the Computer Science Department to do a better job of educating the increasing number of Hopkins students who want a fundamental understanding of computer and software technologies, said Masson, the department chair.

"Hopkins students from essentially every department at Homewood are demanding that their education provide opportunities to become computer literate," he said. "The result is that students are increasingly enrolling in computer science courses. With this new equipment and classroom, our large lecture classes can now be supplemented with smaller sections during which we can offer more personal attention. Students will be able to complete their assignments in less time because they'll have a chance to work directly with the instructor or a teaching assistant in these sections."