AT&T Conference Center's latest technology fosters new ways of teaching and learning for presenters and students

When Jason Moore and three other graduate students enrolled in a technology commercialization course last spring, little did they know the project their team chose to investigate would take on the biggest environmental and political issue of 2008.

The multidisciplinary team created a project centered around research on the hydrogen fuel cell, a "battery" that takes in hydrogen and oxygen to create water and electricity. They aimed to reduce the cost of fuel cells and make them competitive with other, existing energy sources like petroleum. University researchers had independently investigated the use of different materials for both the catalyst alloy and the membrane material inside the cell that make it work. The team discovered that combining these two new materials would significantly reduce the cost of producing cells and make them a more viable energy option for cars and homes.

"Over the last six months, as we have watched gasoline go to $4 a gallon, my team has believed even more in our product," Moore said. Apparently, so does the university's Idea-to-Product (I2P) program. The fuel cell technology team was selected to represent the campus in the Sixth Annual Global I2P Competition and Conference, Oct. 30-Nov. 1.

National attention on America's overdependence on oil and gas may propel this student product into the spotlight, but another change in this year's program is sure to enhance their ability to work effectively as a team, learn about commercializing technology and provide a seamless presentation to the judges.

Program coordinators seized the opportunity to hold the international event at the university's brand-new ATandT Executive Education and Conference Center at Martin Luther King Boulevard and University Avenue, the south gateway to campus. The center provides multiple functionalities and advanced technological features in a learning environment capable of fulfilling the most complex education and conferencing needs.

The partnership of the I2P program's culminating event and the ATandT Executive Education and Conference Center couldn't be a happier union. This residential meeting facility was built to serve the university's mission, giving a stage to the kind of synergy that comes from bridging academia and commerce. Even better, the environmentally conscious topic of alternative energy sources for cars and homes fits well within the walls of a facility built to the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver certification standards and operated with the university's commitment to a sustainable campus in mind.

Hosted by several departments from the Cockrell School of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences, the I2P competition is a learning event, allowing student teams from universities across the globe to teach each other about entrepreneurship, presentation skills and ways to successfully commercialize their research. Professional entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, engineers, intellectual property attorneys and faculty serve as judges to question the teams' approach and provide presentation feedback.

"We are helping to grow the next generation of technology entrepreneurs," said Luz Cristal Glangchai, postdoctoral fellow and program coordinator. "They need to know what perspectives and obstacles they will face from all aspects of the business community as they seek to make their products succeed in the working world."

Now, we have a home for intellectual exchange that not only matches but raises the bar for the settings provided at our peer institutions. Pat Clubb, vice president for employee and campus services
All seven tiered classrooms in the ATandT Executive Education and Conference Center offer Ethernet and power ports at every seat. Such connectivity is unprecedented among academic conference centers and very rare for any meeting venue across the nation. Photo: Coles Hairston

Glangchai sees many features of the executive education and conference center that will improve the logistics of the event and foster more intellectual exchange among teams and judges.

In the tiered classrooms and amphitheatre, conference managers can easily create streaming video and audio, providing it from multiple rooms at the same time and taking advantage of the convenient staging and cabling already in place. Multiple presentation screens and cameras in all the tiered classrooms will allow students to make more professional presentations, moving easily from presentation slides to video clips.

The presenter control panels offer simplified options, and the center's information technology and audio-visual staff use video monitoring of classrooms to aid continuous technical support.

Glangchai said connections at each tiered classroom seat gives judges the ability to enter scores and comments on presentations electronically, providing immediate feedback online to students. The facility's flexibility in having seven tiered classrooms with personal data ports and power connections wired for each seat is unrivaled among conference centers nationwide.

"These teams spend hours and hours refining their presentations," she said. "They watch each other's presentations, and often regroup when they learn something from the judges' comments to another team."

The new center fosters this kind of interaction, with rooms for small group meetings just outside the larger classrooms.

Common areas and lobbies throughout the building, all with wireless access, invite groups to gather with their laptops. Glangchai said this is a huge improvement over past years when teams were funneled back into one large room with no privacy, or huddled in the hallway to discuss their plans.

Another advantage for this international event is the ability for everyone to stay in the same facility. High-definition television screens with laptop connectivity in each guest room can transform televisions into large laptop or presentation screens for small groups to work together.

Room telephones allow for conference calling among guests, easier one-call communication of schedule changes and announcements to all conferees and customized programming. Unusual among any lodging venues, the telephones use Voice-over Internet Protocol technology that also delivers Internet content like weather and stock reports.

Digital display panels outside each classroom have eliminated I2P's expense to create easel signage outside each room. Instead, a graphic will be displayed on the monitor, and the center's scheduling system will automatically update any details about meeting time and content as they happen.

Michael Holleran
All seven tiered classrooms in the ATandT Executive Education and Conference Center offer Ethernet and power ports at every seat. Such connectivity is unprecedented among academic conference centers and very rare for any meeting venue across the nation. Photo: Coles Hairston

"Across this campus, every school and college is recognizing the advantages of this state-of-the-art learning facility," said Pat Clubb, vice president for employee and campus services. "Now, we have a home for intellectual exchange that not only matches but raises the bar for the settings provided at our peer institutions."

The center's exceptional accommodations, proximity and connectivity features will enhance individual visits by researchers, and encourage the scheduling of many larger academic events at The University of Texas at Austin for the first time. The high level of connectivity available in key meeting spaces and onsite guest rooms led the Cockrell School of Engineering to bring two prestigious international faculty events to the university.

In June 2009, the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering will host two concurrent international conferences where 200 faculty will share ideas: the International Symposium on Automation and Robotics in Construction and the American Society of Civil Engineers International Workshop on Computing in Civil Engineering.

"Having an international computing workshop makes it important for presenters to have the ability to provide live demos and call up servers from anywhere in the world. The more prepared the technology is to accommodate their requirements, the better," said William J. O'Brien, assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering.

Participants can also stay connected with meeting content in the building, carrying their laptops from meeting room to guest room without interruption.

The co-located events are larger than the university could have handled before. They will use every meeting room in the center, yet the facility's bandwidth for wired and wireless connections will easily support the volume. Presenters simply walk in to the room, plug in their laptop and begin.

"The new center is different than any other Austin venue with its many tiered classrooms, and we believe this environment will enhance our question-and-answer sessions," O'Brien said.

Michael Holleran
The positive learning environment created by the center's common areas and its wireless access allow for relaxed moments of intellectual exchange among faculty, students and conferees. Photo: Coles Hairston

Technology in the ATandT Executive Education and Conference Center's amphitheatre provides a 12-panel wall of audio/visual screens for multimedia presentation with screen segmentation, picture-in-picture and other video features in clear digital formats. A speaker confidence panel provides plug-ins for different types of electronics and ability to videoconference with experts from the university or anywhere in the world.

Organizers of the Conference of College Teachers of English in spring 2009 also look forward to the convenience of being able to stay in the same facility as the event, one with proximity to key campus resources.

The annual educational gathering of 125 Texas English teachers has not met at the university for more than 20 years, said Rhetoric and Writing Professor John Ruszkiewicz.

"The opening of the new conference center has allowed us to integrate The University of Texas at Austin into the programming," Ruszkiewicz said. "For example, we can now offer pre-conference workshops at two of the finest writing facilities in the state, the Undergraduate Writing Center and the Computer Writing and Research Lab (CWRL) in the College of Liberal Arts."

These two units of the Department of Rhetoric seek to improve the quality of English education in Texas by working with students individually in the writing center and using the resources of the CWRL to investigate how technology and media are reshaping the teaching of composition and rhetoric. In the CWRL, conference attendees will have a first look at two new projects: the pilot of an educational video game developed to teach English composition basics, and an electronic forum that pairs high school and freshman-level college English teachers to compare teaching methods toward improving students' success as they transition to college.

The access ATandT Executive Education and Conference Center provides to campus resources helps to connect the values and mission of the university to the needs of the state and the nation. According to Ruszkiewicz, being a five-minute walk from the internationally renowned scholarly library of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, other museums and libraries will make 125 English teachers and scholars from across Texas very happy.

"Opening the doors of a new conference center brings a whole new opportunity for anyone who visits there to experience the university in new ways," Clubb said. "We are showing the value of the university to the people of Texas."