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June 22, 2006

Making Pitt work: Classroom engineers keep Pitt upgraded

The departure of many students at the end of the academic year signals the start of a more leisurely pace for some staff members. For others, the workload increases as classrooms empty for the summer. Among the latter are the classroom engineers at the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE).

“Summer, Christmas, spring break, any time classes aren’t in session, those are our busy times,” said electronic specialist Ash Brady as he meticulously connected wires between a complex array of new audio, video and computer equipment in the control booth at the law school’s Teplitz Memorial Courtroom.

Their work typically is the final step in the year-round process of upgrading and renovating classrooms to keep pace with technology.

Each year, the Provost’s classroom management team selects which classrooms will receive renovations or technological upgrades. The team, chaired by Registrar Samuel Conte, includes representatives from CIDDE, Facilities Management, Intramurals and Recreation, Computing Services and Systems Development and the offices of the Provost and the registrar.

Committee member Ed Gyurisin, CIDDE manager of classroom engineering, said the team proposes a list of classrooms to be upgraded. The number varies depending on the cost and complexity of the job. A typical year may see about a dozen classrooms renovated, although up to twice that many could be done if they’re all smaller or simpler jobs, Gyurisin said.

When the provost approves a final list, planning begins.

“We’re usually off and running on design development and schematic plans in the fall preceding the summer the work will be done,” he said, noting that the CIDDE engineering department has its hand in each project throughout the entire process. “We get involved starting with the schematic design,” he said. “Our group’s involved pretty much beginning to end.” Design bids are targeted for February and construction contractors typically begin their work in May, as soon as spring term classes end.

“Then in July and August, we’ve got responsibility for getting the equipment installed in these classrooms,” he said of his CIDDE engineering team.

This summer, three classrooms each in Crabtree, Posvar, Victoria and Benedum halls are on the list, in addition to the larger job of upgrading the Teplitz Memorial Courtroom’s technology.

Much of the work of putting together the proper equipment is done in the Alumni Hall basement workroom that Gyurisin shares with his three-member staff of Dave Puccio, Art Ryden and Brady.

There, the necessary combinations of audio, video and computer components can be assembled onto racks in about a half-day’s time, ready to be popped into a media closet contractors build into each classroom.

A standard classroom gets about $16,000 worth of equipment in a rack about five feet tall with a control panel that operates audio, a projector and perhaps a computer. Each system always includes a connection to allow content from a “wild” (user-supplied) computer to be displayed on the classroom’s projection screen. If needed, a document camera — a higher-tech version of the old overhead projector — is part of the package. More extensive configurations can include a reinforced sound system if the size or acoustics of the room necessitate the use of a microphone.

And, of course, larger spaces such as auditoriums cost more: Those renovations can cost more than twice the price of a basic classroom configuration.

Once the racks are built, the on-site installation typically will require a day’s worth of work for two engineers, Gyurisin said.

“Contractors determine when we get in,” Brady said. “When they’re done, we move in.”

The process takes a combination of technical know-how and basic construction knowledge, plus some flexibility. Although the engineers work from detailed wiring diagrams, last-minute changes can be made on site if it seems that rearranging the components would be more convenient to those who will use the equipment.

And, neatness counts. The engineers are careful in making connections as orderly as possible so the wires don’t resemble a tangled mass of spaghetti. “It makes it a lot easier when you have to come back in and troubleshoot,” Brady said.

They lace it all in, test it and make sure each piece works as it should. Although training the users is the job of their media instruction colleagues at CIDDE, the engineering team often gives the person in charge of the classroom a demonstration.

When classes are in session, engineering team members have plenty of other duties to occupy their time. Troubleshooting problems with classroom equipment across the Pittsburgh campus usually takes two of the men a couple of hours a day. Beyond that, the work varies. “We don’t really have a typical day,” Brady said.

Installing technology in conference rooms is a year-round project that fills slow times. Or team members might be researching new technology, attending conferences or training seminars, evaluating new equipment or programming controllers and other devices.

All until the students depart and the team turns its attention once again to the brief window of opportunity when classroom upgrades resume.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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