There are more computers than blackboards on most college campuses today, but that wasn’t always the case. When computers first started to permeate higher education, they were the exclusive domain of researchers and developers. In 1984, that changed at Stony Brook University.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Project SINC, the program that brought widespread computer access to Stony Brook’s undergraduate students.
Until 1983, the entirety of Stony Brook’s computing power was concentrated in the Computing Center, which housed three UNIVAC mainframes — two for academic use and one for administration. Project SINC, or Stony Brook Instructional Network Computing, expanded the number of computers available to students by installing six clusters of 24 machines at strategic locations across campus. This was the first program of its size at any SUNY school, according to a January 1985 article in The New York Times.
“Computers were expensive and hard to come by,” said Chuck Powell, assistant provost for Teaching, Learning and Technology at Stony Brook University. “Though the price of computers has dropped, many students rely on SINC sites. You would think that need would have gone away, but it hasn’t.”
The first three computer clusters were completed in 1985 for the library, Health Sciences Center and Social and Behavioral Sciences building. Three more sites were completed in 1986 for the Engineering, Physics and Chemistry buildings. Today, there are 17 SINC sites with more than 1,500 computers across campus. All six original sites are still in use.
The first sites used minicomputers provided by Digital Equipment Corporation, which was purchased by Compaq in 1998 and absorbed into Hewlett-Packard in 2002. At the time, students used floppy discs to save and print their work. George Pidot Jr., Stony Brook’s then director of computing, predicted that, “In the future, floppy diskettes will be as common as notebooks for storing notes and assignments.”
Though technology took a different course, computers have only continued to grow as an academic tool. Stony Brook purchased Blackboard in 1999 to provide online access to course materials. In 2012, Stony Brook rolled out Google Apps for Education to make collaboration easier for students, faculty and staff across Gmail, Calendar and Google Drive. Now every student uses a computer to read assignments, submit homework and participate in collaborative projects.
As the number of computers and SINC sites has grown, so has the need for knowledgeable staff. With the introduction of the technology fee in 1996, SINC site staff increased from a couple people to about eight student staff at each location. More than 130 students now work as SINC site consultants, helping their peers to solve computer problems and navigate the tools available to them. In addition to getting paid, student consultants gain valuable experience in customer service and technology. Manager of Academic Technology Services Diana Voss said that many former consultants now work at companies like Microsoft and Google, and employers take notice when a student applies for a job with SINC site experience.
Voss herself started working at Stony Brook as a student consultant in 1992. “I met a lot of really great people here who made me feel like I was needed, and that’s why I stayed,” she said. According to Voss, nearly 80 percent of professional staff who are involved in SINC sites are Stony Brook alumni.
SINC sites have continued to evolve in the breadth and nature of services they provide. Access to expensive professional software has become increasingly important, both through physical SINC sites and the Virtual SINC Site that students and staff can run from their own computers. In addition to serving as computer labs, physical SINC sites are now used as classrooms, study spaces and collaborative workstations.
In 2005, Collaborative Learning Areas (CoLAs) were added to several SINC sites, providing an environment for students to work together on the same screen. “Study spaces and group space have always been something we need for students,” said Rose Alessi, SINC site coordinator. Voss and Alessi agree that collaboration is an important part of the future of SINC sites.
Even printing has changed. SINC sites started out with four laser printers at each site. Every printer was connected to a row of six computers, which were the only computers that could use that printer. But since 2005, students have been able to print from anywhere on campus. Students can now even print from mobile devices and email.
Project SINC has had a storied 30 years of development. With the spectacular pace of change in the world of technology, it will be interesting to see how new innovations guide the evolution of SINC sites in the future.
— Will Welch ‘16