A Major Enhancement to Computer Science Education at Lewis University

Professor Eric Spangler and a team of Computer Science students recently installed the CaMS NetLabs Facility. NetLabs is a computing platform that provides remote access to laboratory experiences in computer science. Remote labs have been tricky, particularly when it comes to the networking and cyber security sides of computer science, because students have needed access to the physical hardware. But Netlabs makes it possible for students to interact with real networking appliances almost as if they were sitting there in front of them. And, because the lab experiments can be dynamically reconfigured, Netlabs allows us to have separate setups for every course that can be rapidly set up, torn down, and replaced with another course’s lab needs on the fly.

The students and Prof. Spangler spent a good chunk of Christmas break ordering, installing, and configuring the environment. Prof. Spangler took the lead and purposely got the students involved throughout. A firm believer in hands-on learning, Prof. Spangler made this fast-paced setup an extremely memorable learning experience. You can’t get more real-world than setting up a complicated computer system on a tight schedule. That’s what Spangler and the students did.

Last year, CaMS became a Cisco Networking Academy. To qualify, CaMS revised its slate of networking courses specifically to prepare students to take the exams that lead to the popular CCNA certification. Having Netlabs in the Department means we can now offer that Cisco coursework (CPSC 28100 through CPSC 28400) both on-campus and online. It also opens the door to other Cisco certifications in the future. Plus, we have since become a Palo Alto Networks Academy, which means we can start preparing students to work with that vendor’s technology, too. We also hope to offer Netlabs to staff in Lewis’s Office of Technology to help fulfill their ongoing training needs. Although our primary customers are Computer Science majors, this can become a resource for our IT personnel, too.

The CaMS Netlabs Facility was funded, in part, by the generosity of our donors, including the CaMS Advisory Committee. Thanks to that support, and, in particular, Prof. Spangler’s expertise and tireless efforts working with the students over break and at the beginning of the semester, CaMS students and faculty now enjoy a top-notch, modern, thoroughly flexible training platform for teaching all sorts of topics in Computer Science both on campus and from afar. This is a great addition to the department that will directly benefit students.

One-on-One with Prof. Spangler

I sat down with Professor Spangler to ask him a few questions about Netlabs, how it will improve Computer Science education, and why it was important to him to get students involved in the setup.

Ray Klump: What are the major benefits of having Netlabs?

Eric Spangler: The benefits of NetLabs are too numerous to go into detail here, but it is an exciting way to offer students a different way of learning. It is accessible from anywhere in the world for our students. It offers them real-world experience and not just a simulation which may not have all the functionality. It can be extended by allowing faculty to develop new courses to offer students. Students get to work on full versions of real products, operating systems, applications and real hardware without having to be right in front of all of it or be on campus.

RK: What parts of Computer Science coursework will be enhanced through Netlabs?

ES: I think just about every course could use NetLabs within Computer Science. For this initial deployment of NetLabs, we are focused on our Cisco Academy and Security courses. However, due to the ability for NetLabs to be customized and the ability for new courses to be designed by faculty, we can build environments out for any type of course we choose. We have also talked about trying to extend it to be used by other departments as well, including Aviation and Criminal Justice.

RK: Why did you feel it was important to get the students involved in building it?

ES: Involving the students started as a way to get help building the environment and to give them some real-world experience. I also love teaching and sharing my knowledge, so it was fun bringing them through the process of planning, inventorying, documenting and building out the environment. The building part is still in progress even though it is up and running for many students to use now. It has grown into more than just getting help in the building process and teaching them some real-world skills. It has ballooned into some students using this experience to meet some requirements for their capstone course which will involve them in more than just getting it working for a few courses. It will force them to continue the support and expansion of the NetLabs environment as well as helping some of the Professors build out new courses or modify existing ones for use inside of the courses these professors teach. These students get a chance to continue working with Routers, Switches, Firewalls, several different Operating Systems, VMware (virtualization), Server Hardware, wiring, maintaining and backup an environment, troubleshooting issues in the environment, and so much more. These skills will benefit them in any future endeavors they are a part of.

RK: How does this directly benefit students?

ES: The students get to work with real-world operating systems, hardware and applications in a state-of-the-art environment that will they would otherwise not have access to. They gain experience by performing the labs. Since these are full real-world products and not a simulation or a theory exercise, they can explore other features and dive deeper into the environment. They can use the environment from anywhere at any time either by themselves or in groups without having to be on-campus, which benefits not just our students who are close by but also from all over the world. Lewis no longer has to send out hardware or software just so a student can try to accomplish a project. We now have the ability to offer the student an environment that goes beyond a simple simulation and isn’t constrained by location or the difficulty of setting up and tearing down lab setups. The tremendous power of this tool – and thus the benefits – lie in the platforms incredible flexibility and accessibility.

The Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences is proud to offer Netlabs to our hundreds of Computer Science students, both on campus and off. A big thanks to Prof. Spangler, Chris Reynolds, and students Andrea Ecarma, Jenna Rolowicz, Anthony Borowczyk, Mitchell Distefano, Heather Ray, Randle Ross, Robert Szudarski, Konrad Wojcik, Tyler Starkus, Nadia Beidas, Joe Kelly, Nicolas Soto, and Gabriel Diaz de Leon.

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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