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