Furniture for a Technology-Infused School

As more and more schools assemble high-technology classrooms, administrators have discovered that buying computer furniture is a challenging part of the process instead of a simple accompanying chore.

Computer desks, tables and chairs do not fit the mold of conventional classroom furniture. For example, a conventional student desk rises 30 inches from the floor, while a conventional student typing table rises 26.5 inches to allow for comfortable typing. "Many schools have assumed that desks used to support typewriters will work for computers, but they won't," says Peter Moore, president of New Mexico School Products, a distributor based in Albuquerque, N.M.

Moore points out that 26.5 inches is still a good keyboard height, but that a monitor must sit on a platform on top of a 30-inch table in order to raise the viewing height to a comfortable level.

In addition, Moore says that desktops should be at least 24 inches from front to back and that many schools have widened their desk specifications from 36 inches to 42 inches and even 48 inches, to accommodate monitors and mousepads while allowing space for books.

Rio Rancho Faces the Future
On the outskirts of Albuquerque, N.M., administrators in the Rio Rancho School District recently wrestled with these and other decisions related to computer furniture as they outfitted a new technology-driven high school.

The new four-grade Rio Rancho High School serves about 2,400 students in the working-class community of Rio Rancho, population 50,000. Designed to overcome a drop-out rate of 28 percent, the new school emphasizes career preparation through integrated curricula and lots of computers - 938 of them.

Five academies supply the organizing principle for Rio Rancho's course offerings. All ninth-graders attend an academy devoted exclusively to freshman-level work. Students move ahead by selecting one of the four remaining academies: Business and Technology, Fine Arts, Humanities or Science.

Students use computers in every classroom in the five academies. General classrooms use between three and five computers each, and 10 computer labs use anywhere from six to 35 computers each. Seven file servers and numerous printers support the building-wide network and its Internet connections.

"We have taken an aggressive approach to technology at Rio Rancho," says Richard Bruce, director of information management services for the district. "Consequently, the kind of computer furniture we purchased was important to us."

At Rio Rancho, budget turned out to be less of an issue than usual for a new high school. Microchip manufacturer Intel bore the $30 million price tag for the school in return for tax breaks benefiting a large manufacturing plant located in the surrounding Sandoval County. Of the total tab, the district spent more than $200,000 on computer furniture.

To spend that money as wisely as possible, the district formed a three-person committee to research computer furniture. Committee members included Richard Bruce; Richard Herrera, the district's facilities director; and Kim Bannigan, who heads the school's Business and Technology Academy. The group talked to suppliers and attended furniture conferences in quest of information and advice.

Purchasing as a Process
During their research, the group established general selection criteria. "Ergonomics and comfort were important to us," says Bruce. "The size of the furniture was important, too. We wanted to make sure that it would fit the classrooms and not overwhelm them. Another issue was delivery: Was the furniture in stock? How long would it take to be delivered?"

Next, the team listed a number of specific requirements. The school's network cabling system connects to computers through hubs set into the walls of classrooms. Tables would have to accommodate those hubs. Tables would also have to allow height adjustments, provide trays to keep power cables out of the way, offer adjustable keyboard trays and include a shelf or holder for the central processing units (CPUs).

The committee analyzed the differences between classrooms and between each of the computer labs and worked out specifications by considering the nature of the work to be done in each. A general classroom, for instance, could house three computers on a semi-circular table with the flat side set against the wall where it could plug easily into the cabling hub. One lab, on the other hand, might use the same semi-circular tables arranged in pairs to create circular pods, each supporting six computers. The word processing lab might set up better with flat tables where the CPU and monitor rest beneath a glass panel. The music lab required combination workstations consisting of synthesizers with built-in computers. Chair specifications included durability, casters to allow students to move about easily, an easy way to adjust the height, and sturdy backs.

After developing the specifications, the group requested samples and conducted evaluations in the district office. This led to several modifications in the plan. For example, the evaluation determined that it would be better for CPUs to sit on top of the desks instead of on shelves positioned underneath. "The committee decided that it was dangerous to put the CPUs under the desks because of the chance that students on rolling chairs would bang into them," says Dottie Hill, Rio Rancho's district buyer.

The district architect used the information supplied by the research committee to prepare requests for proposals (RFPs) covering various pieces of computer furniture. The RFPs covered table heights, widths and depths, as well as materials and finishes. The bid documents specified that prices should include assembly, whenever possible. The RFPs also specified delivery schedules, to ensure against late or even early deliveries (no one wanted crates of furniture sitting around unfinished construction areas). Suppliers with the lowest bids for furniture meeting all the criteria earned the orders.

The Selections Are Made
Rio Rancho selected Virco computer tables, 40-inch by 84-inch half round, adjustable height units with high-pressure laminate surfaces. All the tables include wire management panels, adjustable keyboard/mouse trays, and a table-top monitor shelf that adjusts from 17 inches to 24 inches above the work surface. The district bought 256 of these tables for $673 each, a discounted price because of the volume purchased.

Nova single computer workstations were chosen for the 35-unit word processing lab. In these stations, the CPU and monitor mount beneath a glass desktop, allowing use as both a computer table and a desk.

In the music lab, Wenger computer/synthesizer workstations provide a standard 61-key music keyboard with an upper desk to support the CPU, monitor, and wire management modules. An adjustable computer keyboard shelf glides on a track across the front of the station and pulls down to typing height to handle word processing. A raised mouse platform mounts on either side of the station and offers easy adjustability. Beneath the station, a large, open lower level accommodates external hard drives or other peripherals. A pull-out desk-platform mounts on either side of the station and allows students to take notes by hand. Rio Rancho bought six of the units at $1,185 each. New Mexico School Products supplied 973 Smith Systems computer chairs for $81 each. The hard plastic chairs ride on casters and offer height adjustments through a gas cylinder and lever system.

For the most part, students and faculty appear satisfied with Rio Rancho's computer furniture decisions. One exception is the casters on the classroom chairs. According to Hill, some teachers have asked that the chairs be replaced with regular classroom chairs. The reason? When the teachers step out of the room, the students like to race.

Live and learn. That's education. That's computer furniture.

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