Contact: Bob Ratliff
For 35 freshman engineering students at Mississippi State University, a personal computer is as much a classroom necessity as books, backpacks and fast food.
All biological engineering majors, they are the first in the College of Engineering to participate in a project that requires personal access to a computer. Two of their courses, calculus and engineering in the life sciences, are held in a new classroom equipped with connections that allow them to use the same software simultaneously as their teachers. They also can send and receive e-mail and even access the Internet when necessary.
The students aren't part of an experiment. In fact, they represent the future for all MSU engineering majors. Beginning next fall, entering freshmen and community college transfer students will be required to have access to a personal computer.
Dean A. Wayne Bennett said the decision to require computers for engineering majors began with feedback from the people who will hire them after graduation.
"Computers are part of the everyday lives of practicing engineers," he said. "We decided about two years ago that our students had to have better access to computers in order to perfect the skills employers require."
The new requirement also resulted from a study made by a team of faculty members from each college department and a representative of the Engineering Student Council. In looking for new ways to improve students' computer skills, they also received input from Virginia Tech University, a recognized leader in engineering education.
"The bottom line was that we had to provide better computer training for our students," Bennett said. "After investigating ways to accomplish this, the team concluded that personal access to a computer was the only workable solution."
In making the decision to add the computer requirement, college administrators, faculty and students agreed that a major concern would be the financial impact computer ownership would have on students. Bennett said Robert Green, the college's undergraduate coordinator, has helped reduce the financial impact by persuading Dell Computer to provide machines to engineering students at a discount.
"Our students may use any computer that meets the requirements of their classes, but the arrangement with Dell ensures that they will have the opportunity to purchase or lease a quality machine at a significant discount," Bennett said. And that's not all.
"The company is making the discount available to students in the state's community colleges," Bennett said. "Additionally, Dell will open a service center on the Starkville campus to help all the students using its equipment."
In agricultural and biological engineering, assistant professor Alex Thomasson said his department chose to require the use of laptops because they can be brought to class, study sessions and campus rooms and apartments.
"That greatly expands the potential for using computers as a teaching tool," he said.
Thomasson, who also serves as the department's coordinator of the computer initiative, said a smaller, parallel initiative is under way for agricultural technology students in the department, with funding provided by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
"The students have had a few problems getting used to using their computers in the classroom," he observed. "We are providing help sessions and student mentors to answer questions and solve problems they may have using the programs required for their classes."