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Computer Boot Camp by Dr. Mike Topliff, 505.835.5735

SOCORRO, N.M., Aug. 29, 2005 – New Mexico Tech has initiated a new “Computer Boot Camp” program for entering freshmen this fall semester that may be the first of its type available at any university in the nation.

Through the newly implemented academic program, entering students at New Mexico Tech are being provided with the opportunity to build their own desktop personal computer (PC) from scratch for their educational use while attending the state-supported research university.

The innovative program is an outgrowth of one of New Mexico Tech’s Master of Science Teaching (MST) classes that Tech astrophysics professor Dr. David J. Westpfahl has taught since 1997.

The MST version of the Computer Boot Camp class has been available to K-12 science teachers throughout the state and has provided them with an opportunity to build a PC using integrated circuit boards, computer chips, disks, and other components that were donated to the university from other state agencies or corporations.

“This type of classroom activity provides the teachers with a better understanding of computers and erases the fears some people have when dealing with computers,” stated Dr. Westpfahl.

The idea of expanding the Computer Boot Camp was hatched when Dr. Mike Topliff, Director of the New Mexico Tech Computer Center (TCC), and Dr. Westpfahl began discussing the possibility of using some of the obsolete surplus computers from the TCC to expand the MST class to include undergraduates, especially freshmen.

“We believe that every student at New Mexico Tech has a definite need for computer access,” said Dr. Topliff, “and this became the driving force behind expanding the program.”

While the TCC provides over 250 computers for student use in public labs throughout the year, there are times when students that do not own computers are at a disadvantage, Dr. Topliff observed.

“Furthermore, it was depressing to see numerous old computers taking up space in Tech’s Surplus Property Yard, while knowing that some students did not have a computer,” said Dr. Topliff.

When these older, surplus computers are auctioned off each year by the university, the winning bids for a semi-obsolete machine typically average about $5.

“Dave (Westpfahl) and I thought we could come up with a plan to put the machines to better use and provide better service to the students of New Mexico Tech,” Dr. Topliff said.

Drs. Westpfahl and Topliff met with Dr. Lorie Liebrock of Tech’s Department of Computer Science, who upon hearing of the plan to expand the Computer Boot Camp program volunteered her time and also enlisted the help of volunteers from students enrolled in the university’s Scholarship for Service (SFS) program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

SFS students at New Mexico Tech are given funding and training in Information Assurance in exchange for service to the federal government upon graduation.

Dr. Liebrock’s group of student volunteers now provides guidance to Tech freshmen in building the computers, installing software, and especially securing the computers.

(Dr. Liebrock specifically asked to acknowledge the SFS volunteers who signed up with her to assist in the Computer Boot Camp lab, who are listed as: James Kearney; Misty Gottlieb; George Schmaltz; Scott Miller; Aaron Soto; James Lee; William Kwan; Eric Cornelius; Samuel Ashmore; Chad Cravens; Barry Gavrich; Moses Schwartz; Margarita Castillo; and Paul Ferrell [plus one non-SFS volunteer, Nathan Goulding].)

“The close-knit group that has formed since the inception of New Mexico Tech’s SFS program has contributed greatly to the freshman experience, in that the camaraderie demonstrated by SFS students, their willingness to help the freshmen, as well as their impressive knowledge, sets a high standard for student achievement,” Dr. Liebrock related. “We are already seeing some of the same characteristics emerge in this first group of participating freshmen.”

“One of the biggest financial hurdles to implementing the new program was the cost of the required Microsoft licenses,” stated Dr. Topliff. “But with the new Microsoft Academic Alliance program, we were able to include the licensing for the students’ software under the TCC license, with the specific stipulations that students be enrolled in the class for credit and that a faculty member from the TCC be included as an instructor of that class.”

It was at that point that Drs. Topliff, Westpfahl, and Liebrock contacted Ms. Elaine DeBrine-Howell, who is the supervisor of New Mexico Tech’s Education 101 Freshman Seminar class.

“Elaine was very supportive of the Computer Boot Camp concept, and believed that the hands-on construction of PCs by the students could serve to better prepare them for their university experience,” Dr. Topliff said.

Drs. Topliff, Westpfahl, and Liebrock, and Ms. DeBrine-Howell then met with Dr. Peter Gerity, New Mexico Tech’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, who immediately embraced the plan.

“We also met with Dr. Ricardo Maestas, Tech’s Vice President for Student and University Relations, who viewed the plan as an important enhancement for the total student experience at New Mexico Tech,” Dr. Topliff added.

“Drs. Gerity and Maestas thought so much of the plan, that they decided to split the funding of the incidental costs of the program,” said Dr. Westpfahl.

“We also met with the staff in Vice President Denny Peterson’s administration and finance office to ensure that we did not violate any state regulations regarding statutes on donation of equipment,” he added.

The PCs used in the Computer Boot Camp program are loaned to the participating students for the duration of the time they are enrolled at New Mexico Tech, but must be returned to the university when they graduate or leave. Thus, the equipment can be reused—if possible—for ensuing sessions of Computer Boot Camp.

Prior to the start of the 2005 Fall Semester at New Mexico Tech, Ms. DeBrine-Howell contacted all new entering students to solicit their participation, and, as a result, 29 Tech freshmen enrolled in the new program.

Nineteen of these participating students arrived at New Mexico Tech without a computer, and are currently building their own computer as part of the class.

The other ten students enrolled in Computer Boot Camp already owned computers, but wanted the experience of building a PC from scratch and learning to install Microsoft Windows and Linux operating systems, as well as other software.

After spending time in the computer lab with the “Boot Camp” students, Dr. Liebrock said, “These freshmen have progressed at amazing speed. Many of them had not built computers or installed software before, but they completed these tasks far more quickly than expected, and even challenged us to give them more advanced knowledge and experience, such as how to make their computers more secure.

“Many of them are now beginning to do system administration on the Linux operating system, which they had not previously even used,” Dr. Liebrock continued. “A couple of the students have even talked to me about making Computer Science or Information Technology their major.”

Of the further impact this program is having on students, Dr. Liebrock said, “Some of the students have been somewhat frustrated by the experience of building a computer for the first time, but overall, all of the students I have talked with have said this has been a very positive experience. I don’t think any of them are ‘afraid of computers’ at this point. The students and their response make this type of endeavor worth doing.”

“The students have finished building their PCs and installing the software, and New Mexico Tech now has 29 new students who are ready to concentrate on their studies and don’t have to worry about developing their computer skills,” said Dr. Topliff. “This project was one of the rare times where everything aligned at once.”

Contributing factors to the success of the weeklong Computer Boot Camp program, cited by Dr. Topliff, et al. were:

  1. Experienced faculty in Dr. Westpfahl, who is dedicated to the concept of teaching students to build a PC through Discovery Learning;
  2. Dr. Liebrock, who provided the software support and marshaled a core of volunteers;
  3. Dr. Topliff, who provided surplus equipment from the TCC, and TCC staff members Dustin Graham and Steve Ingoglia, who helped teach;
  4. Elane DeBrine-Howell, who included the project in her freshman success class,
  5. Drs. Gerity and Maestas, who provided the financial support for the program;
  6. Microsoft and its new Academic Alliance Program, which enabled the use of the company’s proprietary software;
  7. the New Mexico Department of Transportation, which donated surplus computer equipment; and
  8. Intel Corporation, which also donated surplus equipment
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