Computer Lab Services for Graduate Students

By Dr. Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner, Assistant Director - Academic Computing and User Services

This month's discussion focuses on computer lab services that are of particular use and interest to graduate students. Most schools, areas, and departments offer computer lab services that are available only to graduate students in specific fields of study or are restricted to certain majors. The labs covered in this article are facilities that are open to all graduate students regardless of their major field of study or research focus. 

These include our General Access Computer Labs (GACLs) and our Research And Visualization Environment (RAVE). The following piece details useful items in these general labs that will help graduate students achieve that coveted masters or doctoral degree or certification with technical ease!

Useful Item 1: Highly Specialized Software - All of the labs mentioned above feature software that is often priced far out of the budget of the average 'eat Ramen every day' graduate student. This is software that many graduate students need to complete their research. Most popular are the various statistical software packages utilized in a wide spectrum of majors from political science and education to psychology and environmental studies. These include SPSS/PASW, SAS and Stata to name a few. Statistics software is found in virtually all the labs (including the RAVE) listed above with the exception of the art and music general access computer labs. Additionally, the GACL located in Chilton features Atlas.ti, a powerful data analysis application that would be prohibitively costly for the average graduate student to purchase. Mathematical packages are also in use in areas as diverse as engineering, chemistry and music! Some of the math applications found at UNT are Matlab, Mathematica and Maple. The greatest selection of math applications is found in the four College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) GACLs. Matlab has a more widespread distribution including most of the other GACLs and the RAVE.

GIS (geographic information system) application usage and research is definitely on the rise at UNT and elsewhere and graduate students can find this software in many facilities. GIS applications have become an integral part of many research disciplines and our broad distribution of this type of software reflects this. ArcGIS is available in the RAVE. The Chilton GACL has Map Info Pro,Google Earth and Google Sketchup. The CAS labs have Map Info Pro, Google Earth as well and also have ArcGIS and various topographic and analytic map tools.

ACUS GACL

The ACUS GACL has adaptive applications for special needs on every workstation

Other research-focused software is generally found in the college and school GACLs that directly serve specific majors (though usage is available to students in all disciplines if needed). Spartan and Gaussian, molecular modeling tools popular with chemists, are found in the CAS labs as well as additional software of highly specialized use for life sciences, mathematics, and other majors included in this large college. The music GACL includes theory, music composition, audio engineering and notation software and naturally, the GACL in the College of Visual Art and Design (CVAD) has extensive holdings of Adobe products and other multi-media and graphic art and design products including AutoCAD. Programming packages like Visual Studio are found in the majority of the GACLs. The College of Business (COB) GACL features finance and tax accounting software. Every lab has at least one adaptive technology station featuring JAWS and MAGic software for graduate students with sight issues. The most thorough inventory of adaptive software (and hardware) is found in the ACUS GACL and is a specialty of this lab. Finally, graduate students and their faculty advisors should remember that the RAVE and the GACLs, of course, offer the basic software applications that everyone seems to need every day and the managers of these facilities keep up-to-date with the latest versions of these tools. These 'workhorse' apps include all popular web browsers, the Microsoft Office suite, most if not all Adobe products (Acrobat Reader, full-blown Acrobat Distiller, the Adobe Creative Suite and Design Suite), media players, and CD/DVD burning software. Many of these standard applications become particularly important during the thesis and dissertation stage of a graduate student's career.

Useful Item 2: Highly Specialized Hardware - A description of highly specialized (and usually very expensive!) computing hardware available at UNT cannot be complete without first introducing the Research and Visualization Environment (RAVE) located in C236 of the Discovery Park. For graduate students in Engineering, Computer Science, the College of Information and the Education Technology fields, the RAVE is conveniently located right in your building! For students whose studies are on the main Denton campus, a short bus trip is all it takes to get to a facility with hardware so powerful it would make Steve Jobs, Bill Gates (and basically, any hardcore gamer) weep tears of joy just to see it. The RAVE features hardware to process really BIG files REALLY fast and allows graduate students and faculty and staff researchers to also convert these really big (usually data) files into formats that convey information in a meaningful way to other researchers and also the general public. The RAVE is where graduate researchers should go to produce visual output from their studies for use in conference paper presentations, journal articles, and high-level course projects. If you want your research in large scale visual detail, your work can currently be projected on a 12-screen video wall and by April 2011, also a 60-inch display. The RAVE features research-level workstations (3 Windows, 1 Mac, and several rack-mounted Linux) with top of the line Nvidia cards as well as extensive memory specifically designed and built to support high-performance research and editing. Fields as diverse as chemistry, materials engineering, information science and music take advantage of such computing power. The RAVE also has a 64-inch professional grade printer for producing poster-session materials. More articles specifically outlining hardware services in the RAVE appear here and here in earlier issues of Benchmarks Online.

Data Imaging Tools in the RAVE

Data Imaging Tools in the RAVE

Other high-level hardware can be found in the College of Music (COM) GACL. When it is time to do that all-important audition tape for further graduate study or for professional musical work, the COM GACL has a small recording studio to take care of those needs. Post-production audio hardware is also available. A new offering from the COM GACL is the checking out of iPods and iPads for classroom work. Art graduate students can help assemble that portfolio by printing out their projects on full color professional grade printers. The ACUS adaptive technology lab has special scanners, Braille embossers and readers to assist students requiring those services. As far as the basics are concerned, the GACLs provide scanning and DVD creation hardware as well.

Useful Item 3: Printing Facilities - As mentioned earlier, the RAVE provides high-level specialized printing services for large scale projects on its 64-inch Epson printer. Limited assistance in formatting work to fully take advantage of such large scale printing is also available. The printing services in the RAVE do not come free of cost - a fee of three dollars per square foot is assessed for this work. More information about research quality printing in the RAVE can be found here.

Most students are already aware of the free course-related printing available in the GACLs. All students must abide by the printing guidelines in the labs in order to continue to enjoy this wonderful service. Students cannot just print anything and they can only print a single copy of each document (additional copies should be made at Eagle Images). High-level research posters and print-outs of large images are most appropriate to the RAVE. Graduate students, however, also should be aware of some other important printing guidelines pertinent to their situation: when printing out a thesis or dissertation or any created research document, graduate students should meet with the particular GACL's lab manager in order to receive the proper clearance and instructions on how to do this successfully and within the guidelines. Also, graduate students working as teaching assistants should not be using the GACLs for printing course materials for the classes in which they are teaching. These materials need to be printed using the appropriate departmental resources instead. Many graduate students are not aware of the thesis/dissertation guidelines or the restrictions on teaching materials but these tenets need to be followed so all students can benefit from the no-cost printing privileges. That being said, as someone who had to pay over 50 dollars in 1991 to print out (on a dot-matrix printer - yeah, I am THAT old!) my 250-page dissertation, I sure do wish that my alma mater (the University of Illinois) had had such a nice final copy print-out service available!

Final Notes: - All of these student computing services are available to all of UNT's students but the purpose here was to emphasize lab specialties that are utilized most frequently and cited as particularly helpful by our graduate student population. Graduate students are strongly encouraged to make extensive use of these services in the GACLs located in their colleges and schools and also the RAVE. Many of the services outlined here - especially the software applications - are quite extensive in their scope and can be quite steep in their learning curve. The majority of lab attendants (the folks who check your ID at the desk, do low-level desktop maintenance and support, and make sure that the printers are well-stocked with paper) are NOT going to be experts in particular research fields or with particular research software and tools. Graduate students will receive the instruction they need to learn these applications either from their faculty advisors, during their course of research and self-study or through information, advising and short courses provided by the ACUS Research and Statistical Support Services Team (see http://www.unt.edu/rss/) and other ACUS consultants. These consultants can meet with graduate students in the labs if need be for further assistance. Additionally, some of the college GACLs do have consultants on staff whose expertise extends to the highly specialized applications. Once fully-armed with the technical information and expertise needed, UNT graduate students should be able to take full advantage of all the terrific computing lab services described here. Graduate students, their faculty advisors and other Graduate College - related personnel are strongly encouraged to check out these facilities and services for themselves soon in order to gain firsthand knowledge of our research facilities and should plan on taking advantage of them as much as possible.

For more information about computing resources for graduate students, interested persons can contact the author of this article at ehinkle@unt.edu.