Computer science program reclaims unused space: Chase Science Center lab includes a computer museum

Photo by Al Fairchild

Jim Matzen, a computer science intern, shows off a liquid-cooled computer. The computer is part of a computer museum he is building in Chase 214.

Al Fairchild, Staff Reporter

Jim Matzen’s face betrayed no emotion as he pointed to the maze of plastic tubes inside a PC sitting along the back wall of Chase’s Lab #214. He must have told the truth.

Matzen, an intern who works for Professor Cynthia Lindstrom in the computer science program was describing a water-cooled computer – a concept as alien to casual PC users as a diesel-powered desktop. This machine, though, was real. It was custom built by one of the students in CPS 320, the computer hardware class that uses the lab. The concept of a water-cooled computer, thought at one time to represent the wave of the future because of its quietness and increased efficiency – especially in gaming and overclocked units artificially sped up by tech-savvy users – is now considered unnecessary outside of some mainframes, according to Matzen.

“The new PCs with conventional fans are so quiet and efficient now that liquid cooling is in most cases overkill,” he says. “About the only place they are still in use is in large mainframes and supercomputers, like the Cray, in Wausau.”

The water-cooled unit is part of an evolving computer-hardware museum Matzen is creating along with the hardware lab itself. He began his internship with a room full of discarded computers and parts, and was charged with salvaging what he could and creating a hardware lab for the CPS 320 class.

“The idea of the museum as part of the lab was brought up by Dr. Lindstrom,” said Matzen. “She had mentioned to the students that if they had any old legacy equipment lying around, they could bring it in to start a sort of museum.

“It’s not the focal point of the room,” he continued, “but it’s a part of it.”

While the museum portion of the lab is primarily for the use of the hardware students, Matzen says it is open to anyone who might be interested in the exhibit.

“Because we are cramped for the classroom part,” he said, “the museum portion is just sort of fit in wherever we can find space.” That includes spare counter space at the back of the room and cabinet space wherever it can be found.

Most of the legacy equipment is from the 1990s and includes DOS, Windows, Linux (a version of Unix), and Apple hardware. Peripheral equipment like various sizes of hard drives and kinds of printers are on display, as is a variety of software for each of the operating systems. Lindstrom and Matzen hope to take the equipment back to even earlier eras, specifically the first “Golden Age” of home computing through the decade of the 1980s.

“[The museum exhibits] are used during the class to explain the progression of hardware and software,” explained Matzen. “In the future, we hope to expand to a hardware networking class, and this coming spring there will be Information Security Essentials, which will cover computer crime forensics, ethical hacking and penetration, and IT ethics.”

Because both the setup of the lab and the creation of the museum are being accomplished without funding, Matzen says that the success or failure of the museum venture depends on donations of old equipment, including computers compatible with the operating systems and graphic interfaces mentioned, as well as the CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) used in early home computers like the Osborne, the Tandy TRS-80, and the Kaypro.

Lindstrom said she hopes to obtain funding for expanding the usefulness of the lab.

“It’s designed for any of the classes where we need to include hands-on work,” she says. “We didn’t have a computer science lab when I got here,” she continued. “This room was literally nothing but a pile of junked equipment.”

“It took two days just to clear the stuff aside,” Matzen quickly added.

They both paused to look around at the lab with eleven workstations made up of three computers each. Then she went on, “People need to realize that you can’t have a computer science program without a lab—not just a classroom with computers, but an actual lab.”

Through the hard work of Dr. Lindstrom and her intern over the last two years, Lakeland now has a basic hardware lab and the beginnings of an interesting museum.

Looking around the lab and seeing what has been accomplished on the cheap makes one wonder just how much these two could accomplish if they actually had the funding to do more.