how to set up a college computer lab
April 19, 2005 1:47 PM   Subscribe

Over the summer I'm going to be setting up a computer and electronics lab for undergraduate art students at a private college. Any advice?

I have what I hope is a good grasp on what's involved but would love any suggestions as far as "must haves" and "absolutely don't do this". The budget is fairly generous so suggestions for nice toys/gadgets that can at least pretend to have pedagogical value also welcome.
posted by puppy kuddles to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What do you mean, a Graphic Design Lab? Animation? Always go for a really good scanner, and a really good printer.

As much as I'd like to tell you to get them G5s with Adobe CS2, but honestly until you're some guru of the pen tool you won't fully maximize that stuff. But go ahead and load 'em up if you got the cash. If I was a student I'd rather have a loaner digital camera than the newest photoshop.
posted by Stan Chin at 2:02 PM on April 19, 2005

I worked in a mac lab for art students a few years ago.. I'm sure you'll get more specific advice from people who know more about technology than me (I was there more to keep anyone from walking out with anything and to help photoshop n00bs) but just a few generalities from what I observed there...

Have multiples of gadgets, because it's inevitable that two or more people will have both decided they're going to use X for their project, and someone will get stuck waiting around for hours freaking out about how they're going to finish in time while the other uses it.

The things that got the most use were scanners and zip drives (since they couldn't count on working at the same computer two days in a row), and there was usually a race to get to the computers with better displays. A high quality printer that can print at a large scale is very important - they'll get grief from some of their profs if the printed project doesn't look professional, no matter how good their work was on screen. Personally I would have liked to see a tablet or two in there.

These are all pretty obvious, but most people seemed pretty happy with the setup. Lots of desk space is also helpful, if you get a whole room full of people spreading out their reference material and sketches it can get pretty tight.
posted by jheiz at 2:12 PM on April 19, 2005

For PC's, I'd reccomend that you Ghost your drives. That way you can quickly get back to a working version of your O/S after a student has messed it up.
posted by seanyboy at 2:29 PM on April 19, 2005

For Macs, I'd reccomend that you ditto your drives. That way you can quickly get back to a working version of your OS after a student has messed it up.

In fact, if you can swing it I suggest managing the lab in such a way that every morning students are faced with freshly scrubbed machines built from golden images.

Try to provide at least one computerless workstation, so that those students who have laptops can still take advantage of the lab's peripherals, the collaboration of fellow students, and network access.

Also, based on past lab experience, I can't emphasize enough the value of leaving sufficient workspace between workstations. Let the students spread out a little, because chances are that they have (written, visual, artifact) materials to work with in addition to the computer. You would not believe how many labs are poorly space-planned for the way in which they are actually used!
posted by majick at 2:47 PM on April 19, 2005

What's your potential population for this lab (campus wide, department specific, undergrads only, etc.)? Are you creating individual user accounts for each student? Are you looking at Macs or PCs or a combination of the two? Desktops, laptops or both? Free printing or charge for printing? Large staff or small? Hours of operation?
posted by inviolable at 5:16 PM on April 19, 2005

Response by poster: lab is department specific (art)
individual user accounts
primarily mac lab for software with some pc's for hardware hacking and electronics work
free printing
staff will be myself and one part time IT person
students will have 24 hour access
average usage will be 30 students a semester
posted by puppy kuddles at 5:23 PM on April 19, 2005

Sweet. I would suggest the following:

Buy an Xserve and manage your user accounts from there. That way a student can log into any machine and see his or her specific home directory, settings, etc.

If money isn't an issue, buy G5 towers (as opposed to eMacs, iMacs or minis) with as much RAM and HD space as possible. Also, get the Superdrives.

And if you do purchase G5 towers, you can make port access to the backs of the machines easier with one of these at each station.

Partition the drives.

Large format scanners would be nice to be able to scan some canvases of artwork.

Also a slide/negative scanner with feeder for photos.

Get yourself a 15" powerbook for diagnostics. If one machine needs to be reformatted you can walk over to it with the powerbook, boot the bad machine up in target disk mode and clone it from the powerbook.
posted by inviolable at 6:09 PM on April 19, 2005

As a Grad student at an art school with ALL the gadget goodies (Michigan) I would suggest some portable stuff - digital cameras and hi-md walkmans with microphones (2 each). Maybe have the students purchase some decent keychain drives. Maybe a digital video camera or two. One of the great things they do at UM is to make the gadgets quite portable, in conjunction with dedicated labs. I wouldn't worry too much about scanners, maybe one or two, as a student who is documenting work should be shooting pictures and I often use digital cameras for quicky sampling (you can control the light better with a camera and light setup than on a scanner).

Will you be able to have one 3-D / animation workstation?

Oh, I see generous budget now, so definitely do the minidisc recorder and nice microphones thing. I might suggest dedicated stations split up into : Web, 3-D, Print, Photoshop-only. That might save money on licenses that could be spent elsewhere. If you've got hardware hacking kids, I'd love to see some art students doing server side scripting / social software / Web apps type stuff...
posted by Slothrop at 8:03 PM on April 19, 2005

I'm just finishing up my BFA (only a few weeks left). My biggest complaint about the labs at my school is that the scanners were all only 9x11. Count on people scanning larger or irregularly sized pieces. When someone walks in with a 13x13inch drawing and can actually SCAN it in one piece, they will bless your name. Slide scanners would also go over really well.
If you have a completely unlimited budget, get one of those 3D printers. My school just got one of those and it's so cool I can't even stand to look at it.
posted by Jon-o at 8:42 PM on April 19, 2005

I built three computer labs from the ground up for a school a couple years ago and a few things I remember dealing with were:

- space - I bought individual adjustable desks whenever possible, so that students could crank them up and down to be comfortable. Lots of workspace is good too.
- chairs - comfortable, adjustable chairs. Position the stations so the chairs aren't banging into each other and people can get around them.
- security - how do you keep your gadgets and computers from walking away when the lab is unmonitored?
- fresh disk images daily or weekly are an excellent idea - especially if you use PCs, they can get totally messed up with spyware, etc.
- storage - someplace to keep all your software disks and license documents and spare printer cartridges.
- accessibility - i bought all kinds of special keyboards and mice for students with visual and mobility problems. At least familiarize yourself with the accessibility features in Windows and Mac OS. Your students will probably already be computer-savvy though, so this might not be as much of an issue for you.
- policies - does the school have a policy in place about things like file-sharing and downloading? If so, will you enforce it and how?
posted by bendy at 10:14 PM on April 19, 2005

I'm writing this while sitting at work in one of Weber State University's 12 computer labs. I've worked here for about a year now. This is the nicest/largest/second-newest lab on campus.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Outlaw cell phone talking from the very start. Calls should be taken outside the lab in order to keep the peace. Students have no idea how loud they are on a cell phone.
2. Don't cram the PC's in there...leave enough room on the tables for students' course materials, laptop computers, text books, etc...
3. If possible, set up Group Study Rooms on the periphery of the lab. This gives groups a place to go to talk, and cell phone users a place to run to if need be.
4. Implement a laptop checkout program. We have a locked cart with laptops available that students can check out and use anywhere on campus via the wireless network. The late fees for the laptops are intentionally outrageous ($10 for every 10 min. late), and that seems to insure that the laptops come back on time (checkout time is two hours).
5. Use a printing control system like UniPrint to keep printer use in check. Before UniPrint, we used about five times the paper and toner per week that we do now. Without this, students were simply careless about printer usage.
6. Outlaw--without question--peer to peer filesharing. My personal feelings are that it's harmless, but the university runs a very real risk if it allows students to participate in peer to peer. Anyone found using any example of P2P in the lab (eDonkey, Kazaa, Morpheus, et al) loses all access to the campus network. It's serious.
7. Hire lab aides based on their ability to help lab patrons, not on raw computer knowledge. The university already has computer people on staff...your lab aides are essentially customer service.
8. DeepFreeze. It's a must have. It wipes all user settings and files with every reboot (and the PC reboots with every log in/log off). This also forces students to use responsible computing habits (bring a disk, don't leave your personal files on the PC, learn how to email a document to yourself).

Most of all, try to foster a clean, open, well-lit, quiet lab. The students who end up using it will really appreciate it.
posted by SlyBevel at 7:45 AM on April 20, 2005

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