InterLabs: An Interdisciplinary Laboratory Where Students Lead the Academic Computing Revolution


Place students fromsociology, philosophy, art, communications and computer sciencetogether in a laboratory with cutting-edge equipment and let themtake the lead. You never know what they'll create.

Students and faculty froma broad spectrum of disciplines at Bradley University are creatingnew Internet tools in a laboratory called InterLabs that has alreadyspawned a business and a new curriculum.

At the heart of InterLabsis a philosophy of educational cooperation that represents a shiftfrom specialization to collaboration. The concept is still evolving.But the results so far prove that the possibilities are endless in aninterdisciplinary laboratory where students take the lead toestablish a lifetime of learning.


Student intereststimulated the concept for the lab from the beginning. A student, JimBrodie Brazell, discovered the model for the lab in 1994 whileparticipating in the Discovery Institute's Gilder Fellowship for thestudy of high technology and public policy.

In the model, students atIssaquah High School in Issaquah, Wash., a Seattle suburb, were putin leadership roles to build a computer network. The network linkedthe 19 Issaquah K-12 schools and the community. Involving thestudents saved a substantial amount of money on maintenance andhelped ensure the long-term success of the network.

Mike Bookey, the head of afirm called Digital Network Architects who initiated the Issaquahproject, said that the key to building a computer network andmaintaining it is for the primary users to be involved from thebeginning. "Unless you build it yourself, you won't know how tomaintain it," he said in George Gilder's book, Life AfterTelevision, The Coming Transformation of Media and AmericanLife.

In the process of buildingthe network, the students received an invaluable education. Thestudents are now working at Microsoft and IBM or beginning their owncompanies.

HowInterLabs Began

Brazell returned from theGilder fellowship and wrote a paper ( a computer science class suggesting that the school start aninterdisciplinary computer lab. The paper made its way to the deanand stimulated a meeting with 13 faculty from eight disciplines. Thelab began in 1995. The following year, the university gave InterLabsa $24,000 grant that bought eight computers, a server and ascanner.

Student leadership was andcontinues to be essential in the lab. That became evident in thefirst project. In a unique role reversal, the students became theteachers and were put in a position to teach 330 faculty and staffmembers at Bradley to use the Internet. Students perform theessential functions in the lab including programming, budgeting andtechnical support as well as training. The lab is the only place oncampus where students have access to their own Web server through aroot password. And it is the only place on campus where students areallowed to crash and burn their own system as part of the learningprocess.

This experience-basedlearning philosophy draws on Alan Guskin's call for a "radicalrestructuring of the faculty role" to place more responsibility onthe student for learning. It takes the student "from passive toactive learner; from an emphasis on learning primarily in largergroups to focus on smaller, more intimate groups, and independentlearning; from being concerned with extrinsic rewards to a concernfor internal motivation."

The lab now has ninestations and two servers that operate on three platforms: Unix,Macintosh and Microsoft. During the 1996-97 school year, 52 studentsfrom various disciplines worked in the lab. A few of the students getcredit for their work, but for most it is a way to learn about a new,exciting and intriguing road and the opportunities the knowledge canprovide.

Examplesof Work

The projects the studentshave developed have had a significant impact on the universitycampus. Community groups and other universities also are benefitingfrom the work the students have completed.

For instance, studentSteve Stearns built an online lecture hall called Lyceum. It began asa way to help Bradley professors create a virtual classroom --teaching classes, communicating and grading papers online. Lyceumincludes a virtual campus chatroom and a newsgroup. In the chatroom,teachers and students, or anyone else who wants to have a discussion,can talk to each other simultaneously. In the newsgroup, responsescan be posted.

Lyceum is available foranyone who would like to use it at far, about six classes at Bradley are using Lyceum, includingIntroduction to Theater, Spanish and Computers for Beginners.Teachers from universities in about 30 countries -- including Brazil,Romania, England and Russia -- have used the onlineservice.

InterLabs student leadershave been working on a project with the Hult Education Center, anindependent learning center in Peoria that provides health educationseminars to elementary and high school students. Don Johnson,associate executive director of the center, requested help fromInterLabs on two phases of a Museum in the Classroom Project fundedthrough a grant from the Illinois State Board ofEducation.

In the first phases, thestudents created an online community for the center ( trained 50 teachers and about 1,000 students from 25 schooldistricts how to use the Internet. In the second phase, the Bradleystudents set up a tripod at the Hult center and digitized panoramicviews of the museum using QuickTime Virtual Reality movies. Thesemovies allow online visitors to view the exhibits as if they arepresent inside the Hult facility.

Johnson said the centercould not have afforded to hire a private company for all thetraining and set-up work. "We could not have done the technicalsupport without the students from InterLabs," he said.

BeyondCampus Boundaries

Students from InterLabsalso helped Bradley's student radio station WRBU find a way to reachan audience beyond the campus boundaries. Without an FCC license, theradio station's reach has been limited. InterLabs studentsimplemented a RealAudio server that streams music over the Internet.Now alumni anywhere on the planet can listen to Bradley radioonline.

InterLabs also providedstart-up assistance and programming services to publish the studentnewspaper, the Scout, and Hilltopics, an alumni publication, on theWorld Wide Web. And, students have created Web pages for manydepartments at Bradley, including for athletics, admissions and thecareer center.

Helping others understandand use the Internet continues to be an important role for InterLabs.The students have created an Internet connectivity package to reducethe complexity of accessing the World Wide Web for Bradley faculty,students and staff.

InterLabs has had aprofound impact on all the students involved. It has reinvigoratedstudent interest in academics by encouraging the use of advancedinformation technologies as a integral part of all learning ventures.It has provided students with opportunities to identify theirinterest and develop skills in computer research, computerpublishing, computer science and network engineering within thecontext of their majors. It has provided an unprecedented opportunityto work in cross-disciplinary teams. And, it has inspired students toredefine their career goals.

ValuableLessons Learned

Like the Issaquah Highmodel, the lessons students have learned from working in InterLabshelped them find jobs after graduation and sometimes even before theyreceived a diploma.

Before graduating in 1996,Brazell, with the help of Larry Hicks, Bradley's manager of networkservices, founded CyberDesic Communications, Inc., an Internetservice agency in Peoria that builds Internet applications forFortune 100 companies. The company now has 37 employees and an annualgrowth rate of 400 percent. Much of CyberDesic's early work involvededucation. CyberDesic created K-12 World, an Internet search enginefor teachers and students that can be accessed by anyone( also published the Heller Report on EducationalTechnology Markets on the Internet (

Brazell still worksclosely with the university and with InterLabs. He has hired manyInterLabs students to work for CyberDesic.

SocialInformatics Curriculum

When technology changes,society changes. That is the focus of a new curriculum called SocialInformatics at Bradley, spawned by the work started in InterLabs.Beginning this school year, students at Bradley can earn a minor inSocial Informatics. Bradley is one of a few universities in the worldto pioneer this curriculum.

Like InterLabs, thecurriculum is interdisciplinary, a joint effort between sociology,computer science and communications. Students concentrate on thesocial impact of computerization including how the Internet willchange the way people think and interact in our culture. It includestheoretical and applied studies geared toward technology, criticalthinking and leadership.

In a class called theSociology of Cyberspace, required for those who minor in SocialInformatics, students explore how the Internet has changed societypolitically, economically and socially. Topics include new conceptsof space, time and order; electronic subjectivity and anonymity; newrepresentation of gender, race and class; the emergence of newlanguages and expression; and the revolutionary impact of hypertextand multimedia technologies on human thinking andlearning.

In the near future, wehope that InterLabs can become the basis for a new "VirtualDepartment of Social Informatics," offering an online major toanyone, anywhere in the world.


The biggest challenge wehave faced in creating InterLabs is getting administrative supportfor a creative laboratory that crosses several disciplines inseparate departments and colleges. An interdisciplinary laboratoryd'esn't fit well within the university's traditional budgetarystructure. It is important for the future of the academy that wetranscend departmental divisions and find a way to poolresources.

Those difficulties notonly affect the equipment in the laboratory, but also the studentswho are majoring in many different disciplines. So far, most of thestudents have not received credit for their work in InterLabs. Anycredit they have received would have been an elective because thework d'es not fall in traditional departmental or curricularparameters.


The vision for InterLabsincludes interdisciplinary computing laboratories in each school onthe Bradley campus. The hope is that the interdisciplinary computingmodel will be adopted by universities worldwide.

Technology is changingvery rapidly in this age of intelligent machines and global networks.It is vital that we begin to experiment with the new technologies andthe educational structures they create. Students must be equipped tolearn throughout their lifetime and educators must embrace change.Otherwise, we may face a world where technology is imposed upon uswithout regard for the consequences. Interdisciplinary collaborationbetween philosophers, scientists and artists is essential to thecreation and use of appropriate technologies.

InterLabs is a resourcefor the entire university, a catalyst helping faculty and studentsfrom different fields realize their similarities while capitalizingon their differences. In this fertile environment, the students andfaculty are creating methods and technologies that are defining thefuture.

Leonardo Salamini ischairman of the Department of Sociology at Bradley University inPeoria, Illinois. He also is the director of InterLabs. E-mail:[email protected].

1. Gilder, George (1994), Life after Television, The ComingTransformation of Media and American Life. New York, NY: W.W.Norton & Company.
2. Ernst, David, Richard N. Katz and John R. Sack (1994),Organizational and Technological Strategies for Higher Educationin the Information Age. Boulder, CO: Cause.
3. Trainor, M. S. (1994), Detour: The Truth about the InformationSuperhighway. San Mateo, CA: International Data Group.
4. Castells, Manuel (1996), The Rise of the Network Society.Cambridge: MA: Blackwell Publishers.
5. Bradley University, Department of Sociology online:
6. Fiore, Marc (1997), "Web Page Workhorses: Colleges Rely on StudentExperts," The Chronicle of Higher Education, no. 47, pA22.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.