For his leadership and expertise in developing and refining educational technologies for use in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, MAJ Donald (Sam) Abbott-McCune is the winner of the 2009 Apgar Award for Teaching Excellence, for his project: "Building a Reconfigurable Network Lab."
The Information Technology (IT) discipline – represented at West Point in the comparatively new IT major – is a complex combination of theoretical and applied concepts that underlie constantly changing technologies. Consequently, the most important learning outcome of IT education is that the student be able to use IT concepts to successfully employ unfamiliar technologies in strange problem settings through independent learning. The IT educator’s challenge is to create teaching and learning environments where strange problem settings can be created, unfamiliar technologies can be efficiently provided, and assessment can be conducted. In this manner, the students gain the practice, experience, ability, and confidence necessary for success. Creating such environments is an incredibly difficult pedagogical and IT engineering problem in its own right. It is far too easy for student and instructor effort to be diverted by logistical and unproductive fiddling rather than the desired learning, also to arrive at expensive solutions – successful and not. A main emphasis of IT at West Point is computer networks: designing them to meet human needs, building them, configuring them, securing them, and changing them for new missions. The challenge of creating a new environment for cadets to “learn how to learn” about networks – at a reasonable cost – is addressed by the project described here.
Working over the summer with other EECS instructors, MAJ Sam Abbott-McCune devoted over 250 hours to transform Thayer 452 into a reconfigurable network lab of his own design to provide truly efficient and effective learning opportunities for IT majors and other EECS cadets. He installed over 2 miles of cable, mounted 50 pieces of equipment, and created “patch bays” that allow rapid configuration into thousands of different problem settings with minimal instructor effort. The lab is carefully designed to support several courses and cadet projects in concurrent operations as needed. It achieves all this at a very reasonable cost by repurposing equipment in innovative ways. New learning opportunities that were impossible before the lab was completed include:
- Reduced setup times
- Much larger rand of equipment type available
- Simplified and enhanced facilities for measurement, test, and analysis of performance and functionality
- Side-by-side comparison of different technological and problem solutions
- Ability to easily “roll back” the laboratory setup so cadets can go back and retry earlier exercises
- New “virtual network” technology, key to current and future Army operations
MAJ Abbott-McCune’s network lab has had a tremendous impact on the Information Technology (IT) Program. The program has grown from an initial low-enrollment sidebar four years ago now comprising 9 graduates, 56 current majors, and an accreditation – ready program. The centerpiece course of the IT major, IT382 – Network Systems, has given our IT majors invaluable skills that they have used in conjunction with the Computer Science majors to win the National Security Agency Cyber defense exercise for the past two years. In their written feedback, IT graduates expound on what they learned in the network lab and how it has prepared them to use their IT major for the good of the field Army. An ABET evaluator used the term “envy” in describing the network laboratory and the way it is thoroughly integrated with the IT major. What MAJ Abbott-McCune has done enables students and equips them for necessary work that is relevant in an era of American information supremacy under conditions of increasing digital and electronic threats.