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High Tech Programs link under one roof

by Richard Lovegrove

bridgeResearchers in the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory could influence the work of web course designers down the hall. Students taking classes in the most technologically advanced classrooms on campus can go next door to the New Media Center for assistance in using the latest multimedia advances. Professors, students, and the public can all use the most modern library services. And researchers in virtually any field can take advantage of the advanced virtual reality visualization capabilities of the VT-CAVE.

Virginia Tech believes that the researchers and teachers from these groups and the other various centers, institutes, and departments in the 150,000-sq.-ft., $28-million Advanced Communications and Information Technology Center (ACITC), located in the recently christened Torgersen Hall, will work with and learn from each otherand that the campus and the commonwealth will benefit as a result. "It will bring together groups of people who have similar allied interests who don't see each other very often," says Tom Head, director of Instructional Services. "I don't know that we know all of the consequences . We're [society in general] very bad at predictions."

"People in biology, computer science, and English can bounce their ideas off each other," notes Dan Mosser, director of the Center for Applied Technologies in the Humanities. "A lot of people get their ideas from watching what other people are doing."

Torgersen Hall, which is connected to Newman Library and all of its modern digital capabilities (see sidebar) by a dramatic bridge that spans Alumni Mall, is named for Paul E. Torgersen, Tech's 14th president, even though he doesn't claim to have originated the idea. "I don't believe there's a single Thomas Edison who invented this whole thing," Torgersen says of the new building. "No one claimed authorship, but everybody thought it was a good idea."

When the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors voted to name the facility for Torgersen, it said "the advancement of instructional technology at Virginia Tech has been the hallmark of Paul Torgersen's presidency." Torgersen was dean of the College of Engineering in 1985 when it became the first engineering college at a public university to require each of its students to own a computer. Later, Communications Network Services began to explore the possibility of networking the whole campus. And he has been on campus for, or involved in, an explosion of information technology and advanced communications innovations the Faculty Development Initiative (now the Faculty Development Institute), Net.Work.Virginia, the Blacksburg Electronic Village, the Math Emporium, Cyberschool, Local Multipoint Distribution Service (LMDS), and much more. "The whole university latched onto this as a theme," Torgersen recalls.

bridgeVice Provost for Academic Affairs David Ford, whose office serves as "caretaker" of Torgersen Hall, also saw the technology "theme" sweep the campus and then move into the surrounding community, melding the two into one in some ways. "This building is a symbol of that enhancement of technology," Ford says. "We needed space. We needed a way to be able to incorporate technology into our teaching, as well as our research and outreach."

Torgersen Hall has 30 miles of fiber-optic cable and 75 miles of copper cable. The fiber-optic backbone actually runs throughout the building, instead of just building to building. The whole building will also have wireless capability in the future, a feature that some researchers will use as a test bed to evaluate its effectiveness as a teaching and communications tool.

The eight classrooms on the first floor are unique. Every seat in every room is wired for data, although only two classrooms will be fully activated at first because of the cost, according to Richard Stock, project coordinator. Three rooms can be configured for televised distance learning, and all will have state-of-the-art audio-visual systems and computer-controlled lighting preset for different teaching scenarios. The 150- and 300-seat auditoriums are similarly equipped.

In between some of the classrooms, observation booths with one-way mirrors will allow researchers to watch or videotape experimental teaching, including classes that require flexible configurations other than the standard desks-in-a-row lecture approach. The rooms sit atop raised flooring, which accommodates the current wiring and more easily allows for future renovations necessary to meet the demands of changing technology.

"One of the concepts was that the teaching here would, by definition, be innovative," says John Moore, director of Educational Technologies. "They're going to be the best equipped classrooms, from a technology viewpoint . . . on this campus."

The first floor also includes an atrium with tables, chairs, and computer hookups that will serve as an electronic study court and a space where people can gather.

Visually, the electronic reading room that occupies the arch spanning Alumni Mall will be the most stunning part of the building. Couches, the huge open space, and cherry wood covering the arched ceilings will give it the feel of the old library reading room. But this modern version will allow students and the general public to plug in their laptops, to use one of 40 or so computers at study carrels along the walls, or to confer with technology consultants when they hit a snag.

Torgersen Hall also will provide, at Torgersen's suggestion, an appropriately elegant and high-tech space for the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors (and other groups) to meet. The room will feature a huge round table, top-grade audio-visual equipment, special lighting, and a series of viewing screens that move back and forth by remote control. "It will be a highly finished room," Stock says.

The rest of the building mostly consists of offices and laboratory space designed specifically for the occupants. They include the Laboratory for Advanced Scientific Computing and Application, the Digital Library Research Laboratory, the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, the Center for Applied Technology in the Humanities, Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Fiber-Optics Laboratory, the Multimedia Lab, the Center for Modeling and Simulation in Materials Science, the Assistive Technologies Laboratory, Web Application Research and Development, the Virginia Technical Information Center, Digital Imaging, Instructional Services and Educational Technology, the New Media Center, the Navy Collaborative Integrated Information Technology Initiative, the University Visualization and Animation Group (VT-CAVE), the Center for Alternative Media, the Digital Library and Archives, Library Digital Research, and the Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning.

Placement of the building was easy, Torgersen recalls. Central to the concept of the ACITC was to have a facility that "was a locus of some kind that wasn't attached to one college." And the space at the end of the mall wasn't considered the domain of engineering, agriculture, or any other entity. In addition, it finishes encircling the Drillfield with Hokie Stone buildings. Torgersen is aware of criticism that Torgersen Hall will block the view of the Pylons, but he notes that some early critics of War Memorial Chapel complained that it would ruin the Drillfield.

Torgersen is proud but humble about the honor. "It's one of the most beautiful buildings on campus, and you ask yourself if you're worthy of that recognition," he says. "There are more modest buildings on campus...that might be more representative of what I've been able to accomplish in six years."