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Collaboration is key in lab renovation; mobile apps class is one beneficiary

Students work in groups on their laptops plugged into larger screens.

Students in one of Lafferre Hall’s new computer labs work on group projects in collaborative work “pods.” Up to three users are able to connect their laptops to the larger monitor for group projects.

“The whole point of everything we’ve done is to enable collaboration,” said Dale Musser of renovations to a pair of computer labs used by the MU College of Engineering’s IT program and other computer science courses.

Musser, director of the IT program, said the updated AT&T Lab — so named because the company initiated the IT program with a generous gift in 2005 — has moved from Engineering Building West to Lafferre Hall.

“We used to rely on projection but you need to be able to see what’s going on in animation, video- and audio-editing, and programming code classes,” Musser said. “We’ve installed a 75-inch, Samsung smart TV, which serves as the principal monitor, and placed [connected] HD monitors between every two video workstations so the instructors’ work can be easily viewed.”

In addition to serving as the IT program’s mobile apps development lab, the second renovated space in Lafferre is used to teach hardware and software development and networking courses.

“We’ve built a new kind of collaborative workspace that we are calling a ‘pod,’” Musser said, adding that the entire lab can be reconfigured for scaled levels of collaboration.

Each pod consists of a flat monitor on a stand equipped with connectivity for up to three users. It also provides access to a video input that allows students to share what is on their display with all of the other monitors in the room.  This allows students to share their projects with an entire class or larger groups.

“In addition to video connectivity pods have Ethernet ports and USB power ports for powering mobile devices,” Musser said, adding that privacy can be achieved by using small whiteboards that fit into slots on the tables to create dividers.  The small whiteboards can also be hung on the wall to show ideas on them to others.  Additionally there is 30 feet of whiteboard in the room for students to collaborate and sketch out ideas.

Mobile apps development class thrives

Musser explained that students in his mobile app development course, one-third of whom are journalism majors, work in teams with at least one J-school student on each team.

“The class is based on themes, which allows us to stay relevant,” Musser said. “Last semester we did Big Data.”

Apps that came out of the course include U-Decide. Using all available federal information about colleges and universities, one of the class teams developed an app that allows students to select a school that best suits them.

Using publicly available Boone County and City of Columbia restaurant inspection information, another team generated a Food Service Safety app that allows restaurant-goers to check the health-code compliance of their culinary destinations.

“This coming semester we will be developing apps based on Apple’s iBeacon,” Musser said, describing the device as a low energy blue tooth unit that can send out an identification string to nearby iOS 7 devices. He added that it has many potential uses, including retail applications.

For instance, Musser said, you could go into a restaurant and there could be an iBeacon on the underside of the table that would send a message about a special deal.

“Busses could have an installed iBeacon device and if you pulled out your phone, an app could tell you where the bus is going and its schedule, Musser said. “Or, when you walk into a store, the management could be notified and could provide you with a personal shopping experience.”

Utilizing the new lab space, teams in this semester’s class will be tasked with developing apps that use iBeacon for news and marketing.

Musser said that successful teams may decide on their own to make the apps they conceptualize and develop available to the public.