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Students help students navigate today's digital technology era


Maddie Scholl and Matt Moliterno Maddie Scholl and Matt Moliterno, student members of the Student Engineering Council.

BLACKSBURG, Va., Sept. 7, 2012 – How do the first-year engineering students go about choosing which technological device is best for them?

At Virginia Tech, they turn to their fellow classmates.

When the freshman and transfer engineering students entered this fall, they were expected to purchase the following items: a convertible tablet personal computer (PC) or alternative combination of devices meeting the minimum specifications, the university software bundle, and the engineering software bundle. To some, the choice is not easy.

Enter the Student Technology Council.

The origins of the council started in 2004 when Glenda Scales, the associate dean of international programs and information technology for the College of Engineering, solicited the help of students to explore the opportunity of integrating Apple's Powerbook laptops into the heavily populated, Windows PC Virginia Tech engineering curriculum. Instructions were to test virtualization tools, such as Virtual PC, to see if they could effectively run programs like Autodesk Inventor and P-SPICE to use in the classroom. After much debate and examination, they answered the question affirmatively.

Concurrently, Scales tasked a second group of students to test the latest convertible tablet pc, a mobile computer running an adapted version of the Windows XP operating system with a pen-enabled interface. The tablets looked to be promising technology at the time and were adapted by the college.

In fall of 2005, the Student Technology Council was officially formed to provide the college their feedback, based on their own personal experiences of using certain technology devices. This feedback impacts the college's decisions, and helps to determine the computer requirements for first-year engineering students.

For the 2011-12 academic year, the council had 21 members. New members are recruited each year from across the college. Current members select new members based on their department, academic year, and standing, as well as short essays. Students apply online via the Student Technology Council website and are accepted only in the fall.

Their faculty advisor, Dale Pokorski, director of information technology for the College of Engineering, has been with the group since 2009 and views herself as the facilitator. 

"I coordinate the meetings and pass along all the comments from the meetings to Dr. Scales and Dean Benson," said Pokorski. "The students do the rest and always provide input from a vastly different perspective than faculty."

Technically, there is no budget for such a group. All of the new technologies for the students to pilot, such as the tablet PCs and slates, come from the information technology budget and vendor donations. And so does the pizza they eat at meetings.

The piloted devices are recycled through the Software Assistance Triage (SWAT) Team office and are used as loaners for students and faculty, said the dedicated advisor. One of the perennial questions the students face is, "What are the minimally acceptable devices and should these models be recommended at all?"

By definition, the "minimally acceptable" are the cheaper version of the tablet or PC, but not necessarily the best option in terms of speed, efficiency, and software compatibility.

"Using a slow laptop or a tablet that doesn't have the needed software on it is frustrating and keeps you from concentrating and listening in class," said a student member. It's pretty much the consensus of this group that the cheaper versions should not be allowed. And having a tablet in your possession doesn't mean you still don't need your laptop as well.

"The students also want to develop a blog, providing a platform for conversation between the Student Technology Council members and those interested in learning more about new and emerging technologies," Pokorski explained.

"Long-term goals are to continue to work with the students to help evaluate and discover new technologies that the college may be interested in using. Most recently their input was solicited to aid Scales in her role in developing "Classroom of the Future."

Matt Moliterno of Richmond, Va., a mechanical engineering major, is a member of the council. He is able to provide "direct input based on his own unique experiences of using the equipment." This is "so crucial to determine what students want, what the faculty needs, and how it's actually used in the classroom (or not). The faculty tends to agree because they want to be up-to-date on whatever the latest device the student is using," said Moliterno.

He was given a Samsung slate to pilot last year. His conclusion: Samsung did a better job than other slates at performing effectively with the integrated software.

He often fields complaints from engineering friends, who know of his involvement with the STC.  "I hear other freshman engineering students complain about mandatory requirements -- they already have their preferred laptop and don't want to spend more money to purchase another. Tablets are expensive. Or they complain because they don't know how to use it or take care of it, or even upgrade the software," said the knowledgeable freshman.

But Moliterno knows there is a valid reason the college has set technology standards. And working with the STC isn't just about listening to griping and complaining. A "cool thing" members get to do is attend "Road Maps," Moliterno said.

A Road Map is an event where the computer or tablet vendors showcase their future product plans, not yet made public. This gives the college a "heads up" on what products should be taken in consideration when determining their requirements. It is important to maintain good relationships with the vendors in order for the college of engineering to stay abreast on future launches.

This fall, he anticipates fewer restrictions on what devices can be used in the classroom based on the fact there are so many more new PCs, tablets, slates, and Macintosh products flooding the market. More time has been spent on finding a way to be flexible and incorporate new technology.

Further out, Moliterno would like to think laptops would become much smaller, "about the size of a cell phone with the power of an iPad."

Moliterno returned this fall as a member of the Student Technology Council. He enjoys being an advocate for all engineering students. "We all benefit if technology in the classroom is successful," he said.

Another student member, Madeline "Maddie" Scholl of West Chester, Pa., a mechanical engineering major, said when she received the e-mail soliciting engineering majors to join the STC, Scholl thought, "why not be a part of change within the university and impact students in a positive way. I know I was appreciative of any suggestions I could get in terms of classes to take, what supplies to buy ... really anything. Coming to college with sound advice under your belt is the ideal way to start your college career."

"Invent the Future is personified in the Student Technology Council and the college of engineering because we are working toward using the latest technology innovations as tools to educate ourselves for the future -- to prepare for what happens after college," said Scholl.

Although Scholl doesn't see herself as an expert on technology, her opinions are based on her unique experience with the tablet or PC she was given to test throughout the semester. She doesn't have the "in-depth technology background that some of the other members seem to naturally embody," but she brings "refreshing eyes to the table."

She was given a donated slate 500 to "play with" and provide feedback. She used it for studying for finals and reading documents, but in the end came back to her PC laptop to do the "real work."

As a freshman, to save money, she chose the cheapest computer. Now, with the STC experience and knowledge, Scholl knows cheaper does not mean better. Her prediction about the future of devices such as the tablet is they will become more affordable, like other technologies.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 6,000 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology. Virginia Tech, the most comprehensive university in Virginia, is dedicated to quality, innovation, and results to the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.