- Allison Kruske/Daily
Today, laptops, smartphones and other means of connectivity are a ubiquitous presence on campus. Walk into a University lecture hall and you’ll see students typing away on MacBooks, some taking careful notes, others idly surfing the Internet via MWireless. But in the early ’80s, as personal computing was just beginning to establish itself as an industry, then-Dean of Engineering James Duderstadt found himself with a problem he desperately needed to solve.
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"It turned out very few members of our faculty had ever used computers,” he remembered.
His solution? Give every faculty member easy access to a computer, but with one important caveat.
“I’d only let them have (a computer) if they’d take two of them, and one of them they’d have to take home,” Duderstadt said. “They might not use it themselves, (but) their wife or their children would use it.”
Sure enough, the home computers of many engineering professors were taken over by their children. The activities of two of these children, Thomas and John Knoll, would eventually lead to some of the University’s first and most meaningful contributions to new media and technology.
“From time to time, (their father) would tell me what they were doing, and one day, he told me, ‘They’ve got this little program that they can use to manipulate images, that this company I’ve never heard of from California called Adobe would like to license,’ ” Duderstadt recalled. “ ‘The boys call it Photoshop.’ ”
Building the digital world from the ground up
In addition to Photoshop, the University has produced more of today’s technical mainstays, such as the iPod and the predecessor to the modern Internet, and counts among its alumni Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Google co-founder Larry Page and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy.
“We’re very good at blazing trails,” Duderstadt said. “That’s what people expect us to do.”
But blazing trails isn’t the work of any one individual. In and outside the classroom, innovation at the University is, and always has been, a collaborative process.
Engineering Prof. Elliot Soloway at the College of Engineering teaches a class that helps students develop iPhone applications. Soloway follows a hands-off, anti-book-learning mantra that emphasizes student creativity over textbooks and code samples.
“I help the kids figure out how they can be the next Larry Page,” he said. “I’m not there to teach them how to program; they can do that by themselves … what you’re really trying to find is that absolute crystalline gem of an idea.”
So far, this approach seems to be working. Past student applications include the Michigan app, a must-have all-in-one app featuring University news, a built-in directory, dining hall menus, and, of course, bus routes with real-time schedules. On a broader scale, his course is also responsible for the DoGood application, which suggests individual acts of kindness to its users. Digital media company Tonic, Inc. purchased the application in the spring of 2010. According to its App Store description, DoGood is now responsible for “over 1,000,000 good deeds.”
In order to maintain this level of accomplishment and foster an environment conducive to ingenuity, the University provides substantial investment in the latest available technology. “We worked hard to acquire the latest and greatest technology,” said Daniel Atkins, professor of electrical and computer engineering.
“We provide (students) with a tool set … the freedom to be entrepreneurial, to do new things and develop a self-confidence,” he said.
In addition to course offerings, the University’s investment is reflected in state-of-the-art facilities such as the Digital Media Commons in the Duderstadt Center on North Campus. It’s designed specifically to assist students in implementing new ideas that merge creative arts with more technical fields.