In these tough times making good school design decisions has never been more difficult or more important. To find out how some of the nation’s top architects and administrators are coping with these challenges attend Architectural Record’s Schools of the 21st Century Symposium. It will be held Friday, April 9th, at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, the day before the NSBA Conference. The event is free of charge and is being presented with the support of McGraw-Hill Education and the American Architectural Foundation.
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In some cases, the difficulties of hardwiring old schools can be eased by portable devices and digitally based curricula
Few doubted that the wireless technology revolution would have an impact on K-12 education, but when third graders start turning in homework using personal digital assistants (PDAs), we know we’ve made a quantum leap from the era of chalk and blackboard.
The days are long gone when school computers were rare, mysterious, cranky objects, rolled around on carts from classroom to classroom. Now, the most-wired schools give their students their own computers, assign them homework on-line, and teach them to do show-and-tell using Microsoft PowerPoint. Teachers who use PDAs in their classrooms can assess student work instantaneously, electronically backing up a student’s grade, and sharing it with parents, counselors, and the school district.
The Denver School of Science & Technology has a wireless network, which allows students to access servers throughout the school. A glass-enclosed server room is located behind the staircase. Photo © James H. Berchert Photography.
Ironically, the freedom offered by the move of instruction into wireless cyberspace doesn’t solve the sometimes daunting problems of real space—upgrading the design of network-ready classrooms, installing communications closets for servers, and, even in the burgeoning wireless age, creating the pathways needed for cabling systems.
Robert Bogan, a consultant with Technology Plus in Aurora, Colorado, considers finding those pathways the most difficult aspect of retrofitting older schools with new cables and network systems. In many schools, concrete block walls pose particular difficulties, since architects typically dislike surface-mounted conduit and block walls can’t be opened like conventionally framed drywall. That can be remediated to some degree by routing computer networks, cable television, security, voice, and audio-visual systems on a CAT 6 cable (CAT 6 cable is the wire typically used in networks to connect computers, servers, routers, and other devices) since each system’s unit acts as its own internet address. Bogan says, however, that full integration can be a tough sell with school districts accustomed to keeping systems separate. And wireless technology, though it gives students and teachers vastly increased flexibility, isn’t a cure-all, Bogan points out. “Even with a wireless data system, you still need to provide cable for all those other systems.”
A typical school information technology system backbone includes various servers, typically mounted in racks, and an ever-expanding array of digitally-enabled technology. A firewall prevents outsiders from accessing the networks and also limits accessibility to sensitive content. Click to enlarge.
Infrastructure isn’t easy
While working at Swanson Rink, an engineering firm in Denver, Bogan installed both wireless (Wi-Fi) and hard-wired systems at the Denver School of Science & Technology, a school in which technology is showcased rather than hidden, with exposed cable trays in the open ceilings and a glass-enclosed server room. “Having both systems is more expensive,” he says, “but you have to provide wireless because everyone uses it.” In addition, for high schools offering courses that depend on bandwidth-hogging software like AutoDesk’s AutoCAD, hard-wired networks are mandatory. More common in schools are classrooms where computers are used mainly for accessing the Internet, which is easily accommodated on a wireless network.
In new school construction, it’s easier to accommodate leading-edge technology, as was the case in Denver. But in older buildings consultants like Bogan find themselves cramming server racks into unused custodial closets or carving out extra space in administrative offices. Reusing existing cable is rarely an option, according to Bogan, since gauging length, quality, and condition is more time-consuming and expensive than pulling new wire. New closets need additional cooling to handle electronics-generated heat loads, as well as electrical receptacles. Upgrading a school’s electrical power system to meet the needs of the computer age can present space issues, as well as large costs for service size increases, transformers, and panelboards. Giving a laptop to each student is easier than ensuring each classroom has the electrical capacity to power them; one advantage of issuing PDAs is that multiple units can be charged off of one receptacle plug. Some schools have even provided dedicated closets intended just for charging laptops.
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