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It's a Thursday afternoon in Hammer Health Sciences Library at Columbia University's uptown Health Sciences campus, and lymphocytes, monocytes and macrophages are the topics in Paul Rothman's "Immunology" class. As the lecture comes to a close, Dr. Rothman asks whether students have any questions. "Thumbs up, you guys?"
Thumbs go up, both uptown and in front of a video camera in a multimedia classroom on the Morningside Heights campus three miles away, where eight students, in addition to the 16 uptown, have watched Dr. Rothman via crystal-clear video projected onto a five- by six-foot screen. With digital immediacy, they have seen him place transparencies on an overhead projector, discuss rare diseases of the immune system and point to descriptions of the diseases.
"This is a lot better than jumping on the train uptown," said Sarah Patrick, a doctoral student in chemical engineering, who at the start of each lecture in the Engineering Terrace classroom unlocks a storage desk up front, sets up a small videocamera and turns on the projector.
"Connecting these two classrooms is the first real application of this digital technology at Columbia," said Edward Leonard, professor of chemical engineering, who proposed the bi-campus class. "People have been taking courses by television for decades, but the quality was never like this."
Dr. Rothman, assistant professor of medicine and microbiology, sees the Morningside students on a small video monitor at the front of his classroom. He finds it difficult to detect student facial expressions, but can respond when a questioning hand is raised. Written materials shown during the class are faxed to Professor Leonard's office for same-day distribution, though future classes will rely on the network's capacity for interactive data sharing.
Morningside students get to meet with Dr. Rothman and the uptown students in discussion groups every other week. "The beauty of this system is that it allows students who would not otherwise have registered for immunology to take the class," Dr. Rothman said.
The interactive broadcast is an experimental application of Columbia's new high-speed digital communications links, which tied Morningside to the Health Sciences Division last October and by summer will connect the main campus to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the University's earth sciences campus in Palisades, N.Y., 12 miles north of West 116th Street.
William Chen, manager of network systems for Academic Information Systems, who is installing the links with a group of Columbia computing specialists, said the system will make interdisciplinary cooperation among far-flung Columbia departments much easier. The Graduate School of Journalism, for example, has instituted a joint master's program in environmental journalism with Lamont. Chemistry would like to use Lamont's supercomputer to remotely conduct molecular visualization. Electrical Engineering and Radiology are talking to each other about remote diagnoses, and Medical Informatics and Computer Science are discussing how to send large volumes of clinical records.
Bioengineering and biology students can profit immensely from taking courses offered at Health Sciences, where much of Columbia's biology research takes place, said Professor Leonard, who is also coordinator of the bioengineering major in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He is working with Health Sciences professors to offer Morningside courses on artificial organs and on the quantitative biology of cells to medical students in the spring.
Images from the immunology classroom at Health Sciences are digitally encoded at the site and flash onto a 155 megabyte per second (Mbps) fiber optic cable to a 45 Mbps microwave dish atop Presbyterian Hospital. Instantaneously, the signal is transmitted via line-of-sight microwave to a similar dish on the roof of the 14-story Seeley W. Mudd Building, which houses the engineering school, and is routed to the multimedia classroom. With signals from both sites being exchanged simultaneously, the effect is of being in two places at once.
The tri-campus network, as it is called, uses a switching technology known as Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), an ultra-high-speed system that routes information in uniform packets, or densely-packed bursts. ATM switches are located in the Service Building uptown, in Geoscience at Lamont and in the computer center at Morningside. From Lamont, signals will travel on fiber optic circuits leased from NYNEX Corp. Columbia's digital network, a so-called broadband network because it can transmit huge quantities of information, could send an encyclopedia from one campus to another in a matter of seconds.
The Morningside ATM link is also a site on NYNet, a high-speed digital network that connects research centers and government laboratories such as Cornell, Polytechnic and Syracuse universities; SUNY at Stony Brook; the U.S. Air Force's Rome Laboratory; Brookhaven National Laboratory; Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; and the NYNEX Science and Technology Centers in Syracuse and White Plains. With the tri-campus network, researchers at Lamont and Health Sciences will have digital access to any campus on that network.
Professor Leonard believes the digital link can increase course enrollment in any number of courses, and both students and professors cite the convenience of attending the class from Morningside.
"I wanted this course for myself and my students in the Artificial Organs Research Laboratory, which I direct, and found the total time and cost of going uptown and back to be prohibitive," Professor Leonard said. "It would have interrupted our research mid-day, twice a week."
"I'm in labs most of the time," said Christine Cain, a doctoral student in biology taking the course by video. "It's much easier for me to take advantage of the course this way."