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NMSU students enjoy computer lab transformed into wireless lounge

The soft glow of lamps, comfortable chairs, original artists' works on the walls and the steady stream of hot coffee might make this large, split-level room seem like a favorite neighborhood coffee shop. But this cozy nest at New Mexico State University is the new face of the computer lab.

New Mexico State University students gather to study and use their laptop computers in the wireless lounge in Jacobs Hall, which was converted from a traditional computer lab, saving the university $54,000 a year. (NMSU photo by Minerva Baumann)

On the first floor of Jacobs Hall, NMSU's wireless lounge serves up WI-FI and coffee - both free - for students looking for a different kind of environment in which to study. Instead of sitting in a room filled with row after row of desktop computers, students can now bring their laptops to the lounge and use the free wireless internet connection.

Senior English major Angela Jay comes to the wireless lounge twice a week.

"You're in classrooms pretty much all day and sitting in office-type chairs," Jay said. "It's a lot more comfortable here, the lighting is good, you can just relax and do your work. I get a lot of my work done here."

Shaun Cooper, NMSU associate vice president and chief information officer, says the idea for the lounge evolved organically as he was looking for opportunities to reduce costs. With 54 computers at Jacobs Hall in the first floor lab at a cost of $1,000 annually per computer to operate, eliminating those computers is saving $54,000 a year.

"When we were running this lab as a desktop flat sterile place, we had about 20 students in here on an average day," said Cooper. "Now we see between 20 and 30 students in here regularly.

"The cost for us to run a better environment for the students is less than the thousands of dollars we spent maintaining hard tops in a sterile environment, and the students are happier."

Few people now would call the lab sterile. The comfortable chairs and couches and the easy silence are part of the appeal, but the student artwork, which changes as new canvasses of student work become available, also helps transform the lab into a lounge that feels more like home.

"It's a better environment," said Raul Urena, a freshman nursing student. "If you go to the lab upstairs, you hear a lot of chattering. Here, it's not noisy. You can just come here and do your work."

Urena says he visits the wireless lounge every day, sometimes more than once. He's often alone, but sometimes meets with classmates because the layout of the lounge allows them to work in groups.

Cooper says at first he didn't think beyond getting rid of the 54 computers to save money. Once the space was empty, however, Cooper's staff came up with the idea to redecorate the lab with secondhand furniture and turn it into a wireless lounge. After consulting with the student advisory committee, the lounge was created last spring.

"At New Mexico State University, the students have been very innovative," Cooper said. "They love the wireless. The students pay for this wireless lab. This lab doesn't cost much, but the students direct the funds that are spent on this lab."

NMSU's technology fee is governed in a different way from any other institution, according to Cooper. The university has a governing student body, whose members direct Cooper and his staff on how to spend the technology fees, which this year total $1.9 million.