By Ben Hosking
Computer science for everyone. That’s the mission of Dean Brodley and the leadership of the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University (CCIS). According to Greg Smith, CCIS Assistant Director of Operations & Space Planning, the college “wants to build an environment that fosters that [mission].” With the expansion of CCIS interdisciplinary and combined major programs, the college needed a computer lab that reflected the changing way students are working – laptops and groups as opposed to desktops and solo work. According to David Whelpley, CCIS Senior Director of Operations, the college “must provide our students the tools and resources to meet contemporary challenges; we must enable them to work and learn in a collaborative atmosphere, in groups or pairs.”
Since the original 102 West Village H (102 WVH) computer lab was built, the college has tripled its undergraduate student enrollment; growing from 555 students in 2005 to 1,800 in 2018. The original lab reflected an older approach to computer science. Smith remarks, “It was exactly what you’d think a standard computer lab would be. Pretty much a factory setting – single use. Group meetings meant huddling around one particular machine.” With the college’s new requirement that all students own laptops, a design built around rows of desktops became redundant. In addition, the college was growing faster than the space dedicated to house it.
CCIS Director of IT, Jon Frederick, notes that before the renovation, the lab was “just desks with computers… collaboration was the core reason to renovate.” Where before it was a static setup, the lab is now a “floating” space: mobile and moldable. There are three fifty-five inch monitors for group coding, laptops for students without them, a whole new projection system, and virtual machines running the remote-desktop software, VMWare Horizon, to replace the old desktops – moving the computation to servers in the college’s datacenter. The space can now be set up as a student lab, a lecture hall, and an open event space for fundraisers, parents’ weekend, and TED talks. Student capacity increased from 75 to 110 seats.
The result of this renovation: a huge uptick in student use and collaborative work. “Computer Science has a stereotype of an individual student plugging away, alone at a machine. The new 102 Lab aims to break down those barriers and stereotypes and show that CS is now a robust, interdisciplinary industry. Much like a startup company, the idea behind the lab was to encourage cross-collaboration,” Smith observes. “Any student taking a CCIS course, regardless of their major, is encouraged to share their ideas in the lab with their classmates.”
Walking by the computer lab since the start of the semester, Smith has seen “more students in the lab than there have ever been.” The lab has received a lot of positive reviews, working exactly as designed. Frederick sees “students hanging out there with their peers and being more social” than before. The 102 Lab is located in a high-traffic area, with new student tours walking by daily, and thousands of others walking by along Huntington Ave. Smith adds “We wanted to build on the mantra of ‘science on display’ and we thought this was a great opportunity to show what our students are capable of.”
As well as the lab, the college updated the hallways, previously a common place for students to collaborate. Where there were previously just lobby style chairs, now packed high-top tables, soft seating and powered outlets abound. The two old conference rooms have been recalibrated with a retractable wall to create up to four distinct spaces.
Artistically, the redesign focused on graphics and murals that would be both statement-making and timeless. The marketing team settled on a colorful, abstracted display of algorithms and binary code. Overall, Frederick notes that the lab and hallways feel “more vibrant, with students being more active and present.” With the installation of the large CCIS graphic on the second-floor, opposite from the Museum of Fine Arts, CCIS stands out as a landmark on Huntington Avenue to attract future students.
At the opening of the space in early September, Dean Brodley predicted that 102 WVH would “quickly become the place to be.”
If the overwhelmingly positive response is anything to go by, it has.