Turnip Weaves a Web

December 1, 1996

Mark Miester

Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Lee Zimmerman pays his students the highest possible compliment. "I mean, let's face it," he says. "These people are geeks." And when it comes to the rapidly evolving world of the Internet and the World Wide Web, Zimmerman's electrical engineering and computer science students are also some of the most savvy minds on campus.

Taking advantage of that untapped knowledge and enthusiasm is the impetus behind Turnip Project, a pilot program designed to link students with faculty members interested in establishing their own self-maintained World Wide Web sites. Beginning in May 1996, Turnip's student staff configured, designed and handed over the reins on 19 World Wide Web sites for departments and faculty members across campus.

In most cases, the site resides on a spare computer in the faculty member's office. According to Zimmerman, who directs the project, the underlying goal of Turnip is to distribute--and demystify--World Wide Web technology. "We're trying to distribute the knowledge and take a little bit of the technology side out of it," Zimmerman says, "so that faculty members can concentrate on doing what they want to do, which is getting their content out there on the Web." Zimmerman initially proposed Turnip as a way to complement the centralized campus Web structure provided by Tulane Computing Services (TCS).

He realized that a decentralized model of the campus network--one comprising diverse, specialized sites located on discrete, autonomous servers maintained by their owners rather than pages residing on a server at TCS--more closely reflected the essence of the Web. Accordingly, the mission statement of Turnip Project asserts that encouraging the establishment of individual sites represents a means to take advantage of the chaotic nature of the Web while energizing the scholastic community and the visibility of Tulane.

Zimmerman pitched his idea to William Bertrand, vice president for institutional planning, research and innovation, who authorized funding the project. "Our goal was to hit one faculty member or somebody from every building we could find," Zimmerman says. "We were trying cover the campus." The students handled all the technical details required to get the sites online, from configuring computers to loading software, setting up pages and connecting the pages to search engines. Beyond that, the students led one-on-one tutorial sessions with faculty members to train them to update and maintain the sites themselves.

After meeting with each faculty member to determine his or her goals for the site, the Turnip staff set up appropriately configured pages for them. According to Zimmerman, training faculty to maintain their own sites is a key aspect of Turnip Project. "I think there's a lot of misapprehensions about the Web," Zimmerman says. "People think it's too hard to make your own Web pages. I think just the opposite: Once you see a sample page, it's very easy to do.

The second thing people think is that they need a big, fast, expensive computer to be a web server, but a 386 with 4 megabytes of RAM--which most departments have sitting in closets--is more than adequate." Uses for World Wide Web sites are as varied as the users. Honors Program Director Jean Danielson, for example, wanted a site to keep honors program students abreast of scholarships and fellowships as well as to highlight their achievements. Associate Professor of Social Work Michael Zakour, whose research focuses on disaster relief efforts, sought to publish his fairly specialized research on the Web.

Teresa Cole, Ellsworth Woodward Professor of Art, sought to establish a Web gallery featuring some of her works. Frank Durham, professor of physics, needed an interactive site that could be deeply integrated into the coursework of his Approaches to the Scientific Revolution class. How well has the project's staff achieved its objectives? Web surfers can judge for themselves. The Turnip site, includes a description of what each faculty member wanted to accomplish with his or her page and a link to the page set up to achieve that goal. It also includes a link to the current page, which may or may not have been modified by the faculty member.

While the project slowed considerably at the end of the summer as Zimmerman's students refocused on classes, faculty members desiring sites are in luck. Zimmerman recently received funding to hire additional students to continue the project in the spring. Anyone on the faculty interested in participating in the project should contact Zimmerman at 862-3281 or via e-mail at

"Some faculty members look at technology as just being more work--which it is," Zimmerman says. "But a lot of them are just champing at the bit to try and do this stuff but don't know where to start. That's what we're trying to provide with this little project: a place to start and people to answer their questions."

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