Leadership in the Age of Information

Information has always been central to the University's mission. Mr. Jefferson underscored the importance of information by placing the University's library in the Rotunda, the focal point of the Lawn. When his first students and faculty needed information, whether researching classical Greek roots or the latest advances in chemistry, they had only to walk to the Rotunda.

In the first century of the University's existence, libraries were meditative, quiet places. And while they still are sites for quiet research and study, they have expanded rapidly during the last forty years in response to the growing emphasis on information. The University acquired its one-millionth book during the late 1950s, more than 125 years after the first class of students was admitted. In 1975, the University collections reached two million, and just thirteen years later they reached the three million mark. In 1994, the four-millionth book, Commonwealth Professor of English and U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove's poem, Lady Freedom Among Us, was added to the University's holdings.

Although cataloging and maintaining these printed texts is a formidable task, an even larger challenge is posed by the sweeping computerization of information. Computers have long been the domain of scientists and engineers, but today powerful new technologies have made them research tools for scholars in the humanities and related fields. The University has assumed national leadership in using these technologies to the fullest, stimulating the flow of information in new forms and along new channels to the academic community.

An Electronic Academical Village

The key to this process has been the creation of a network linking all on-Grounds computers. Presently, more than half of the University's dormitories and nearly all of our departments are wired for direct connection. All major academic, administrative, and medical buildings were connected to a fiber-optic backbone this year, allowing a tenfold increase in the data that can traverse the network at any time.

From dorm rooms, faculty offices, libraries, and computing labs scattered throughout the University, students and faculty can access a wealth of local information, as well as the vast resources available through the Internet, the remarkable decentralized computer network used by educational institutions and government agencies worldwide to exchange and process information. Whether interested in a map of Paris or the text of the North American Free Trade Agreement, students need only to tap a few keys and the results appear on-screen in a matter of seconds.

Not only does the network give instant access to vast amounts of information, it makes communication between students and faculty easier. With electronic mail, the habit of letter writing, so important to Jefferson, is being revived. When today's students want to share an observation on their studies, they send e-mail to their professors and other students and receive responses in a matter of minutes. A new Pilot Advising Network promotes a similar form of access. This experimental advising program allows undergraduates in the College of Arts and Sciences and their advisors to communicate by e-mail and receive such on-line, up-to-date information as transcripts, departmental major requirements, and course schedules and directories.

By encouraging the sharing of information and ideas on Grounds, the University has taken an important step in recapturing the intimacy of Jefferson's University. Accordingly, the University network has been dubbed the Electronic Academical Village. IBM has supported our efforts by giving the University $1 million worth of computer equipment as part of its Shared University Research Program. Three years ago, IBM gave $1.3 million in support of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

Realizing the Potential of Computers in the Classroom

University faculty are in the forefront in using computers as teaching tools. Professor of architectural history Carroll W. Westfall uses more than one thousand color and black-and-white slides in his undergraduate course in Renaissance and Baroque Architecture. Providing students access to these pictures had been a cumbersome process, until he had them scanned into the new Digital Image Center at the Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library. Now, with the mere click of a computer mouse, students can call up individual images, place them side-by-side for better comparison, and review them via computer for exams.

Computer simulation has growing numbers of applications as a training tool. Prospective teachers can hone their classroom manner using a computer simulation designed by Harold R. Strang, professor of education. Students communicate via keyboard with a computer-generated classroom, and, as in real life, their reactions to classroom distractions influence how well their charges learn. When the simulation is over, the computer compares the prospective teachers' performance with models of successful teaching practices.

In the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, medical students, nurses, and other health care workers use a program called A.D.A.M. (Animated Dissection of Anatomy for Medicine) to perform detailed human "dissections" on computer screens. A human figure of either sex or any race can be depicted and viewed from any angle. Students create their own layer-by-layer cross sections, right down to the skeleton, and test themselves with an exam provided by the computer.

In engineering, architecture, and other fields, computers are no longer merely teaching aids. They have become inseparable from the content of these disciplines. Computers have become a means of both expression and investigation.

Students in architecture use computer-aided design to visualize and represent buildings, landscapes, and entire cities. The three-dimensional models produced on computers allow the student architect to combine and rearrange light and shadow and assess the effects of these changes on materials costs or energy use. Students can collaborate on design. Soon, through the Internet, students here will be working with students at universities elsewhere, all in preparation for the way they will collaborate as working professionals.


Advancing On the Frontiers of Research

Computers and computerized equipment have long been mainstays of scientific research. Roseanne M. Ford, associate professor of chemical engineering, is leading the University effort to perfect ways of using existing soil bacteria to break down contaminants that threaten the water supply. With the assistance of a $1.5 million grant from IBM's Environmental Research Program, Ford uses computers to derive equations describing how large populations of bacteria migrate toward a food source. "Our goal," Ford says, "is to be able to develop a bioremediation strategy for a particular site that we can use with confidence to make predictions about cost and time."

Most universities have been slow to realize how computers are revolutionizing research in the humanities. Not so here at the University. The University's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, launched in 1992 with a $1.3 million grant from IBM, is nationally recognized as a pioneer in this field. Jerome J. McGann, an English professor and one of the first fellows of the institute, compiles hypertext editions of works by nineteenth-century poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Hypertext is an assemblage of words, pictures, charts, illustrations, and sound, all linked together so that one can move from one item to another easily. Future users of McGann's electronic archive will be able to see and compare handwritten first drafts with final printed versions of any of Rossetti's poems; view crisp, full-color images of his paintings; zero in on and enlarge portions of any illustration; and instantly place combinations of poems and paintings next to one another for on-screen comparison.

The University is also making significant contributions to the development of computers themselves. During the last decade, the speed and power of microprocessors have doubled every twelve to eighteen months. Yet despite these stunning gains, some problems still elude solution - not merely because they are complex but also because we lack the necessary computing power. "We have mathematical models that generate remarkably accurate twenty-four-hour weather forecasts," William A. Wulf, AT&T Professor of Engineering points out. "Unfortunately, it takes a week to generate them, even using our fastest machines."

Led by associate professor Andrew Grimshaw, experts in the Department of Computer Science are developing a solution to tap the unused power of the 20 million computers on the Internet using a technique known as parallel computing. This is a strategy for dividing a computing task into parts and distributing those parts to a number of microprocessors working in tandem. A prototype of the Legion Project will be available on the University's local network by year's end.


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