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NewsSmith

High Tech at Your Fingertips

By Jan McCoy Ebbets
Photos by Jim Gipe


For her computer science graphics class Rachel Dines ’07 had to re-create a Smith building using the 3-D design software Google’s SketchUp. She poses in front of Wilson House while holding its miniature replica, which was produced on the science center’s three-dimensional printer.

These days it seems anyone with a computer and access to the Web can fly through cyberspace to almost anywhere on the planet. So although traveling an Internet on-ramp is the closest that many Smith College students in this spring’s seminar in international and comparative politics may ever get to Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria, the logistics of studying these African countries have never been easier. Thanks to Google Earth and a professor’s savvy in navigating Web pages, they’ll get much more than a textbook look while they tour geographies with the help of satellite transmissions of the actual Maghreb region north of the Sahara desert and west of the Nile.

Using the Web application Google Earth and a mapping and navigation system, students in this government class will be able to digitally soar through space, find their destination with a few taps on the keyboard and clicks of the mouse, and visually zoom into Morroccan ports, the Barbary Coast as well as desert flatlands of the Western Sahara through a satellite transmission of the actual area.

In the rapidly shifting landscape of the information age, students and faculty in Smith classrooms belong to the growing ranks of those on campuses across the United States who are harnessing the power of exciting new technologies.

Over the past decade, Smith has invested $16 million to build its technology infrastructure—including computers; printers; and voice, data and video networks.  Annually, Smith spends nearly $6 million providing information technology support services and maintaining that infrastructure. But it’s not enough to simply say that today technology is shaping the experience of a Smith education, and NewsSmith has gathered some stories to show our readers how.

Sidebar: Looking for the Latest Technology? There’s Plenty of It Here

Sidebar: Face to Face Still Aces Hi-Tech, Sometimes

Sidebar: Neilson Library Will Soon Offer the Best Seats Around


Molly McCadden ’07 (left) checks text messages on her cell phone.

Perpetually Connected: The Generation of Digital Natives

Not surprisingly, Smith Director of Educational Technology Services Tom Laughner says that about 96 percent of all Smith students own computers. And seniors Rachel Dines and Molly McCadden are like many who arrive on campus bearing not only personal computers but iPods and cell phones and a savvy born of a lifetime of experience with the technologies that power them.

It seems like Dines, who opened her own e-mail account when she was only 7 years old, is always online. She may be somewhat atypical as she spends hours in front of her dual-core Intel processor computer every day—for class updates and course work, a work-study job with Smith’s Information Technology Services, a burgeoning consulting business as a Web designer and, perhaps most absorbingly, for socializing. She has downloaded Google Earth “just to play around with.” One of her biggest concerns is that there are not enough campus locations for free wireless access to the Internet. She’d like to be able trek around campus with her laptop and still stay connected without constantly searching for wireless hot spots.

As for keeping up with friends, she has plenty of virtual ways. Certainly she can use instant messages (IM)—the nearly instantaneous back-and-forth exchange of electronic messages that flash across your friends’ computer screens—and post information and photos on the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook. “I’m an addict of Facebook,” admits Dines. “I was in Spain on study abroad last year, and that’s how I am staying in touch with friends from Spain now. That and IM-ing.”

Dines, who hopes for a career as a Web designer, is among the current generation of students who some researchers refer to as “digital natives” or “millennials.” Born roughly between 1980 and 1994, these students are the first generation to spend their entire lives immersed in a world of computers, Internet connections and myriad Web applications, and they have never known life without them.

McCadden uses her Smith e-mail account for most written communication. It has practical advantages and enables quick connection. But as a member of the Student Government Association (SGA), she struggles to keep up with the volume of electronic messages.

As for connecting with friends, when face-to-face contact isn’t possible, she sends instant messages. Otherwise, she dispatches text messages from her cell phone.

“There will always be a lot of ways to get in touch with somebody,” McCadden says.

That reality is apparent in the lengthy list of contact information that the SGA Cabinet passes out at the beginning of each academic year. It includes not only residence name and room extensions for each SGA member but also numbers for cell phones and post office mailboxes, as well as e-mail addresses and, for those who prefer instant messaging for conducting cabinet work, personal IM screen names. After being in house government for four years, “you learn how to manage all this information,” she says smiling.

Creating a New Synthesis of Arts and Technology

The assumed boundaries between the arts and sciences are artificial and constructed and do not really serve us in this complex, interdependent and rapidly changing world,” says Thomas Ciufo, Sherman Fairchild Visiting Artist at Smith.

Ciufo joined the Smith faculty this past fall after the college received a $225,000 grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, which will help the college develop emerging initiatives in arts and technology. His three-year faculty position is designed for an artist-in-residence who will teach as well as act as a resource for Smith in developing the applications of technology in the arts. He is collaborating with a team of faculty and staff members known as the arts and technology working group—from art, theatre, dance, music, computer science and other departments—who are considering how to integrate the arts with technology in ways that might result in a new major and minor.

This year, in Smith’s Digital Design Studio in the Technology Learning Commons, Cuifo is teaching a new course, Introduction to Media Arts and Technology. Campuswide, interdisciplinary arts and technology courses were offered last fall in such departments as art, computer science, music, engineering, dance, film and physics.

“The digital revolution provides artists and computer scientists with powerful new tools for expression,” says Charles Staelin, dean for academic development. “Having an artist-in-residence focusing on building bridges between arts and technology is an invaluable opportunity for Smith.”

Thomas Ciufo, Sherman Fairchild Visiting Artist, is a composer and media artist who performs playing an electric guitar, extended through the addition of sensor technologies linked to a computer performance system.

As a composer, performer and media artist, Ciufo is not the typical professor. Before coming to Smith, he spent a year at Arizona State University as a postdoctoral researcher in its arts, media and engineering program. He holds a doctorate in computer music and new media from Brown University, and in 1995 he released a self-produced CD, Sun at Midnight. Recent or ongoing sound works include three meditations, for prepared piano and computer; the series sonic improvisations #N; and eighth nerve, an improvisational piece for prepared electric guitar and computer. He has recently performed in Vancouver, Barcelona, and in a duo improvisation with composer, theorist and computer musician David Birchfield in Mexico City, Minneapolis and New Orleans.

Early on, Ciufo discovered that the creative work he wanted to do, particularly in what he calls “computer-mediated improvisation,” required “unique technological resources from multiple disciplines and that using electronic and computer technologies was a basic necessity, given my artistic interests.”

“It becomes a very dynamic situation when our ideas are shaped by the possibility of the tools, and at the same time we can build the tools or technologies that we need to realize or express our ideas.”

So Many New Programs, So Little Time

Before arriving at Smith in 1988 to found and chair the computer science department, Joseph O’Rourke taught computer science at Johns Hopkins University. His students then, as he recalls fondly, were typically the pocket-protectored, computer science “geeks” who wanted to go into the rigorous academic discipline, part mathematics and part engineering, devoted to the study of computation.

Today, as Smith’s Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor of Computer Science and professor of mathematics and statistics, he is teaching in surging numbers the students who are more interested in Web design than algorithms.

“Computer science is no longer for geeks and nerds. Certainly not here,” he says.

Professor Joseph O’Rourke and students (above) work with a three-dimensional printer while he holds one of the 3-D models the printer produced.

Now he organizes his computer graphics class to cover application software and programming language for everything from two-dimensional drawings and transformations to three-dimensional design and printing, game design and ray tracing. The class attracts senior math majors as well as sophomore art history majors, and the course work has been revised to accommodate both computer science majors and others with less technical expertise by offering two tracks of assignments.

“What triggered this change was the growing interest of Smith students in both computer science and art, but they did not want to become computer scientists,” says O’Rourke.

The real challenge in teaching computer graphics is covering in a single semester a multitude of programming and software technologies. “It used to be, I taught one software application in this class. Now it’s futile for a student to spend three months in a class mastering just one, because in five years the software company may be out of business. The technology changes so rapidly. So I focus instead on the fundamental principles of computer graphics and use a variety of software.”

Nationally, interest is high in both the media arts and computer science among college students who find in electronic/digital technology powerful new tools for expression, O’Rourke says. “There has been a big curricular rollover in terms of what is defined as computer science, and it’s mirroring what we’ve already been doing at Smith.”

Recently, the computer science department established two interdisciplinary minors—digital art in 2004 and digital music in 2005—that capitalize on Smith’s strengths in art and newer strengths in technology. O’Rourke is also part of an arts and technology working group, which recently developed a proposal to formalize a new interdisciplinary program that connects computer science and engineering to the arts.

On a very local scale, O’Rourke applied for funding so that Smith could purchase two sophisticated pieces of equipment to “help bridge art and technology”—a three-dimensional printer and a laser cutter. He reports that students in both science and arts classes are enamored of the high-end features that make possible the creation of model buildings and artistic etchings.

One of those students, junior Elizabeth Woock, is planning a self-designed major that will combine her studies in engineering and computer science with an art project. “Being of an imaginative persuasion, I will apply the [science] learning to craftsmanship and fine art,” she anticipates. “Arts and engineering are already connected. It’s just that liberal arts institutions have been slow to formally link the two.”

Elizabeth Woock ’08 hopes to design a project that combines her studies in engineering and computer science with art.

Pulling the Plug on the Slide Projector

Like so many other professors at Smith, Nina Antonetti, assistant professor of landscape studies, is a firm believer in using images to illustrate her lectures.

However, the pictures projected onto classroom walls these days, often juxtaposed two or more at a time, are not 35mm slides run one at a time through the traditional carousel. Rather, they are high-resolution digital images stored on the college’s computer network and transmitted into the classroom. The images are manipulated with a computer’s touch screen, which directs a digital projector hanging from the ceiling.

It’s a powerful new presentation tool. Antonetti can hop on the college’s computer network day or night and retrieve what she needs for her next class from Smith’s Insight Image database, a virtual gallery or library of high-quality images. The technology gives members of the Smith campus community the ability to research, design and store their own galleries of digital images along with descriptive information for lectures and research.

While teaching a class titled Suburbia: The Middle Landscape, assistant professor Nina Antonetti discusses an aerial photo of “Boomburb,” taken from Delores Hayden’s A Field Guide to Sprawl.

In the late 1990s, Smith was one of the first American liberal arts colleges to begin building a digital-image collection. Today, Insight’s online digital library has now expanded to more than 150,000 high-resolution images including works of art in all media and digital reproductions of objects from the Mortimer Rare Book Room and the Smith College Museum of Art. Web access to the database is available via any networked computer on the campus. Besides including works of art, the database houses images for other disciplines, including the sciences.

The technology staff of Smith’s Imaging Center and Visual Communication Resource Center gives high priority to assisting faculty, staff and students who wish to work with the Insight images. For more information on Insight at Smith, go to www.smith.edu/imaging/insight.htm.

Other new technologies that are perfectly suited to the way Antonetti teaches are the aerial photographs from Google Earth—“It’s a technology that is tailor made for landscape studies,” she explains—and the interactive, searchable Web database of Catena: a Digital Archive of Historic Gardens and Landscapes. Online users “tour” such featured sites as villas, palaces and parks. In spring 2006, Antonetti’s class “Rethinking Landscape” was one of just a handful of college courses in the United States chosen to evaluate the technology for the Bard Graduate Center, which sponsors the site catena.bgc.bard.edu.

Ironically, when Antonetti first started teaching at Smith some eight years ago, she thought that mounted photographs, 35mm slides and an overhead projector were all the technical tools she’d ever need to illustrate her class lectures. Now one of her biggest challenges is digitizing thousands of the slides she has collected over time and adding them to the online Insight Image database.

“I can’t even imagine what the technology will be in five years, given the enormous changes in teaching we’ve seen in the last five. I will never teach landscape studies in the same way from year to year,” she predicts.

Conferences, Podcasts and Wikis, Oh My!

Not long ago, after participating in a faculty symposium on teaching with new technologies, sponsored by Smith’s Educational Technology Services (ETS), Michael Barresi, assistant professor of biological sciences, decided to try Web conferencing, a form of live audio or video meetings conducted over the Internet. It would enable him to invite some of the top minds in the biology field to lecture to his students from their offices that were sometimes hundreds of miles away.

So far, so good. This fall he used the Internet and an iSight video camera attached to his Macintosh computer to hold his live meetings. Among the researchers he brought to his classroom, via the Internet, are Kenneth Kemphues, a professor of genetics in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Cornell University; Cliff Tabin, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and adjunct professor of health sciences and technology at MIT; and James Battey Jr., head of the National Institutes of Health stem cell task force and director of NIH’s Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Michael Barresi, assistant professor of biological sciences, guides a Web conference featuring colleague Sofie Salama, research biology specialist with the Center for Biomolecular Engineering, University of California at Santa Cruz and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“It has been hugely successful,” says Barresi of the Web conferences. He plans to post the recorded lectures on a Web site affiliated with his laboratory so that they are available through podcasting, a method of distributing audio and/or video files over the Internet and downloaded automatically for playback on mobile devices (iPod, mp3 player or cell phone) and personal computers.

Such devices are changing the college landscape. Cell phones and iPods, for instance, are no longer just for entertainment but rather a reflection of how students choose to live and study, receive and trust information. Offering quick access to information, podcasts, like the devices that deliver them, are appealing because they are portable. A virtual “grab and go” podcast lecture can be downloaded and listened to, or viewed, immediately or at a later time. “Time management is our students’ greatest challenge,” says Kathryn Lee, Smith ETS media services specialist. “Podcast portability allows them to multi-task—view or listen to an assignment while walking to class, eating lunch or working out.”

Kathryn Lee, media services specialist, consults with students collaborating on a project in a lab in Seelye Hall’s Technology Learning Commons.

“Both students and faculty use podcasts to share their work with one another,” adds Lee. “Downloaded podcasts enable students to review their course materials and replay portions of an audio or video file easily; students also podcast multimedia projects.”

Meanwhile, for those who like to tap into collective talent and work collaboratively, there is the wiki—a communal Web site that lets users freely author, add to and edit Web page content.

Artist-in-residence Ciufo set up a wiki for members of Smith’s arts and technology working group so that they could share information, make announcements, record notes from meetings as well as float new ideas.

Susannah Howe, Design Clinic director and a visiting assistant professor in engineering, found that wikis made the work for four teams of senior engineering students a little easier in the 2005–06 yearlong course. “The Design Clinic teams used their wikis in a number of ways. At one level, they used the wiki to store their uploaded documents. In addition, they created multiple pages to provide organization of their different types of information,” she explained. As they developed familiarity with the wiki format, the teams also “started writing content directly on the wiki—beginning to harness the wiki’s true benefits. Within this content, they could easily link to other content on the wiki, thus creating a nonlinear network of material.”

You can see the Design Clinic 2005–06 wiki firsthand online.


Tom Laughner, director of Smith’s education technology services, emphasizes that technology is one of many tools useful to teaching.

Technology in the Classroom: Not Just Bells and Whistles

Technologies in and of themselves do not change social institutions,” insists Eszter Hargittai ’96, assistant professor in the communication studies and sociology departments at Northwestern University. “It is the particular ways in which we decide to implement and use them (not to mention regulate them) that can have various repercussions for social interactions and institutions.”

Hargittai is the 2006–07 fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and over her career has focused her research on the social and policy implications of information technologies. She says, “Technology’s potential implications are dependent on how we implement them.”

Indeed, many Smith professors have been quick to embrace new technologies, says Tom Laughner, director of ETS, which provides pedagogical consulting and project development support to faculty and staff.

To champion the classroom-technology trend, ETS recently launched a Web site that showcases recent faculty projects integrating technology and teaching in innovative ways. See www.smith.edu/its/ets/teachwithtech for more.

Says Laughner, “Our emphasis is that technology is one of many tools useful to teaching. Chalk, in fact, is perfectly acceptable, as well, if it suits the needs of a professor.”

For some, chalk may remain the tool of choice. For others, the lure of riding a wave of innovation to see what technology can do for education is irresistible.

Still, as Elizabeth Woock ’08 notes, the equipment and technologies available may be top notch, “but the professors themselves beat out everything else in terms of making things fun and interesting. Technology will never replace that, I hope.”

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