Open-office cabling is not just for the office anymore

High school students turn a storeroom into a "smart room" using prewired floor and connectivity accessories.

Oct 1st, 1999
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High school students turn a storeroom into a "smart room" using prewired floor and connectivity accessories.

Jeannie Buck

Cass Comprehensive High School

Brad Barrett

Connect Center Inc.

Much discussion has centered on how to equip the next generation with the job skills necessary for employment in the new millennium. But what does this mean? While most agree that students today must become computer literate, the new workplace requires more than keyboarding and basic application skills.

An answer to the question is found in the definition of the new workplace. It is a term acknowledging the dramatic changes in the way business is now being conducted. Robert L. Simison, Detroit bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, defines it well: "Two powerful trends are expected to fuel future growth. One is the sweeping redesign of thousands of workplaces as corporations drop rigid hierarchical structure in favor of team working schemes. The other is the growth of technology in the office, requiring new ways of hooking into various electronic networks."

Schools today must provide students with the opportunity to become skilled and literate users of the technologies and organizational structure they will find in the workplace of the future. It is a place where employee empowerment and the teamwork approach to analysis, innovation, and problem solving are making "the fixed office" an endangered species. It is also a place where people can gather on an ad hoc basis, plug in, boot up, and collaborate. The desktop is becoming the laptop, and the meeting room can be anywhere.

Faced with all of the challenges of providing meaningful education that prepares students for the post-graduation real world, Cass Comprehensive High School (Cartersville, GA) approached Connect Center Inc., a local manufacturer and marketer of networked floors and connectivity accessories, with the beginnings of a plan. The result was a new Partners in Education program. Under the watchful eye of faculty and company-sponsored trainers, students planned, managed, and installed a networking product in what had been a 700-square-foot storage room in their school. By doing so, they created a new, multipurpose, technology-enabled "smart room" for their school.

Idea takes off

A smart room is an easily reconfigurable space with densely placed power and data-access points that allows schools, businesses, and conference and convention centers to facilitate collaboration and creativity in group-oriented spaces. It is a space where teamwork and individual work are facilitated through easy access to information networks and enabling software.

The Partners in Education program kicked off when Cass High School`s Technology Club, at the invitation of Connect Center, visited its model smart room. During lunch, students were presented an overview of the company`s business plan and features about the room in which they were meeting. Students and faculty expressed keen interest in having a room like that at the school. A lively discussion ensued about the many ways the students and school could use a flexible, networked room.

The students, many of whom repair the local school district`s computers in their spare time, rose to the challenge, and an innovative arrangement was devised by Connect Center and the school. The students would work as a team to install and project-manage the installation of the networked floor system. Connect Center and its suppliers agreed to donate materials and training. Presentations were made to the principal and school board members, who warmly endorsed the project.

Teams were formed and tasked with specific aspects of the project, based on the students` individual skills, abilities, and interests. Tasks included project management and marketing/ fund-raising, computer-aided design using Visio Pro/Tech 5.0 for room design and floor planning, and performing Category 5 cable terminations. Additional school resources from construction, electronics, art, and metal-shop classes were solicited and brought into the project.

Just over a month from initial contact, these talented and motivated 14- to 18-year-old students were ready to install their smart room (see "Smart kids build a `smart room` with networked floor technology," page 32). Material deliveries and training were scheduled, and over the course of a five-day school week, the team accomplished its goal.

The construction project

Monday was spent in training. Groups attended training sessions on flooring, carpet installation, and Category 5 cable termination. Charles J. "Chuck" Bliss, registered communications distribution designer (RCDD) and director of technical training for Aerotek Inc. (Norcross, GA), led the Category 5 training using unshielded twisted-pair cable supplied by CommScope (Hickory, NC). Although students received an abbreviated version of his usual course, Bliss was so impressed with their enthusiasm and ability to learn quickly that he commented, "Projects like this will help to build our future workforce."

The smart room that students installed over the next four days is built on the Intercell underfloor cable-management system manufactured by InterfaceAR (Grand Rapids, MI). The system consists of a carpeted, ultra-low-profile, raised-access floor equipped with concealed hatches that access power and data connections housed in underfloor boxes provided by Electri-Cable Assemblies Inc. (Shelton, CT). The boxes serve as consolidation points as covered under the Telecommunications Industry Association`s telecommunications systems bulletin TSB-75, which addresses Category 5 zone cabling in corporate office environments.

This system accommodates any number of concealed data and electrical boxes that contain up to four electrical outlets and up to eight color-coded telecommunications data ports to deliver voice, data, video, and electrical service to work areas. When placed on 6- to 8-foot centers, for example, the boxes allow almost infinite flexibility in placing equipment and furnishings in the smart room. Modularity exists in and under the floor, allowing relatively easy realignment of the concealed floor boxes without tearing out the entire system.

The floor`s understructure resembles an egg crate and is less than 3 inches high. The grid pattern of cones serves many functions, including facilitating cable management by separating power and data runs, protecting proper bend radii, and supporting the half-meter-square steel floor plates that are overlaid with carpet tile.

The Cass High School project uses nine concealed floor boxes in the 700-square-foot room. The power distribution system is constructed as a modular, 8-wire, 3-circuit configuration with two of the three circuits sharing a common neutral. The system`s components include a simple junction box, the starter cables, and the interconnect cables. The junction box houses the connection between facility power and up to three 3-circuit starter cables. Power cables are terminated in female connectors. Starter cables are terminated at one end, and interconnect cables are terminated at both ends. The underfloor boxes are wired to use a single circuit and equipped with two dual-male connectors, which support flexibility in configuration and simplify subsequent moves, adds, or changes.

The students decided to equip each box with four 8-pin modular Ethernet connectors provided by Panduit Corp. (Atlanta) in one of the two standard faceplate knockouts. The other was covered with a blank to await future enhancement with fiber-optic or coaxial connectors. Each port is wired back to the patch panels in the freestanding telecommunications closet (TC). For quick and easy management of any port in the room, a simple box-numbering system and color-coding of ports within each box are repeated at the patch-panel identification labels. The concealed floor boxes, when used in conjunction with patch panels in the TC, act as a consolidation point for network connections. This arrangement supports plug-and-play data connectivity at the patch panel and at the smart room peripherals, where network intelligence resides.

Currently, the TC is equipped with a small hub connected to the school`s library network and a T1 (1.554-megabit-per-second) connection for Internet-based research. The students are also refurbishing a server for installation in the TC.

At the end of construction week, the smart room was carpeted and completed, with all connections tested and the network functioning. An art class contributed its time to repaint the room. The school`s emblem is cut into the carpet in a contrasting color to locate the concealed hatches.

Accessories and applications

Workstations and other peripherals, including electronic whiteboards and presenter stations, can be connected directly to the ports and outlets in the floor boxes. Other accessories commonly available for use with a smart room include videoconferencing stations, data docks that bring power and connectivity to desktop level, pop-up islands in conference tables, and permanently or temporarily mounted desktop ports.

The faculty and students at Cass High School envision multiple applications for their smart room, which can function as a traditional classroom or a network-enabled training and instruction room. It can be used as a seminar room for meetings and presentations, lecture and breakout room, or conference room allowing hands-on participation by attendees. The faculty and administration are particularly interested in the room`s potential as a revenue generator if leased out to local business and professional organizations.

To allow more students to share in the learning experience of constructing and using their networked room, the Cass High School project is being implemented in three stages. The first stage has been completed, and stages two and three will be implemented over the next two semesters.

Benefits all around

Students with high-technology aptitude are now implementing those talents at Cass High School, thanks to the help of the companies that donated time, materials, and talents to the Partners in Education program. These students are no longer looked upon as nerds because they know a lot about computers. They are the leaders now. Freshman Sarah Cavazzini explained that "gaining the respect of your peers is one of the most gratifying achievements."

Technology team instructor Ron Rosado adds, "Another big benefit is the hands-on actual industrial experience you can`t get in the classroom. These students are experiencing what it`s like to work in teams and have a foreman. They`ve become a team, and they all take great pride in their accomplishment."

All participants benefited from the project. The school got a flexible new technology classroom, and donating companies found value in developing skills in the future workforce as well as establishing another beta site for the networked floor system. The students gained real experience and satisfaction in their achievement. There really are situations where everybody wins.

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Chuck Bliss, registered communications distribution designer (RCDD) and director of technical training at Aerotek Inc. (Norcross, GA), explains the capabilities of the networked floor to students.

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What was once a messy storage room was transformed into what Cass Comprehensive High School students call "The Connect Center."

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Power and data-cable terminations are accessible through floor boxes. The lid, emblazoned with a "C" for Cass High School, is removed with a plastic handle that has hook-and-loop fasteners under the base.

Smart kids build a `smart room` with networked floor technology

The week-long network installation project at Cass Comprehensive High School (Cartersville, GA) was a hands-on experience that taught the students valuable skills. It may also launch some of these technically capable young people into careers in the telecommunications field.

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Students formed standing and ad hoc teams to achieve their goals.

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From left, David Dautel of Connect Center, Randy Wrinkle of Custom Builders Inc., and James Howell of Interface Inc. meet with Cass Comprehensive High School instructor Ron Rosado and students to discuss the next step in the project.

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Freshman Sarah Cavazzini spreads adhesive, preparing for the next section of flooring to be laid.

Jeannie Buck is assistant principal of Cass Comprehensive High School (Cartersville, GA). She can be contacted at tel: (770) 382-0230 or e-mail: jbuck@bartow.k12.ga.us. Brad Barrett is president and chief executive of Connect Center Inc. (Cartersville). He can be contacted at tel: (770) 606-9663 or email: bbarrett@correctcenters.com.

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