The explosion of technology in the last 50 years has dramatically affected our lives — not only what we are taught, but also how we are taught. Today's society requires children to be ready for the next step. The need to provide an early educational advantage requires the planning and design of efficient career and technology education (CATE) facilities.

It is critical for learning environments that foster the teaching of technology-related courses to have the technology infrastructure to support the required course instruction; thorough planning and design are the keys to making CATE facilities work.

Establishing infrastructure

Administrators and educators must determine what will be taught in order to establish the type, size and number of technology classrooms that must be built.

An institution's technology electives can reflect the courses that business leaders and educators believe will best prepare future employees. Districts may look to community businesses for support. Some institutions have partnered with local businesses that provide equipment or materials for courses that expose students to potential career opportunities. The goal is to attract students early on by showing them the breadth of technology careers available and by providing them with the required skills.

Building design begins once a curriculum is established. CATE facilities must be flexible and adaptable because course requirements, student populations and technology itself will change over time. Using demountable interior walls is one way that building design can respond to these changes. Another alternative is to construct interior walls that extend to the bottom of the ceiling. Because the ceiling will span the entire space over several classrooms, the walls can be torn down and constructed elsewhere without affecting the ceiling grid. This solution, if planned in conjunction with the placement of lighting, electrical outlets and ductwork, can provide significant built-in flexibility.

CATE facilities require space for computers in every classroom, not just in traditional computer labs. All CATE instructors depend heavily on technology to complement the delivery of course content. Districts always should consider how additional computers or other fixed technologies may affect the overall square-footage requirements for a classroom.

Despite new technologies, a lecture still is the primary tool for distributing educational information to students. Teachers in shops and labs require space for a lecture area that is either within or immediately adjacent to the room. This provides for group interaction and instruction that is convenient to the hands-on learning space.

Technology planning

Planning for a flexible technology infrastructure involves detailed coordination among the design team, school administrators and other key service providers.

A majority, if not all, of the technologies found in a CATE facility originate in a centralized location called the main equipment room or MER (formerly known as a main distribution frame, or MDF). The design of an MER should include accommodations for a variety of technology services. For an MER to support these services, adequate floor space must be calculated during the pre-design phase. Examples of some of the services include network electronics (switches and routers), a public-address system, and demarcation for long-distance carriers, the private branch exchange (PBX), file and mail servers, and digital video recorders for closed-circuit monitoring. Furthermore, an MER must accommodate the expansion of technology and provide adequate space for workers to service equipment.

Because of the overall size of a facility and the distance limitations of structured cabling, an MER cannot provide direct connectivity for all users in a building. Additional rooms called equipment rooms (ERs) are placed in strategic locations to augment the user's connectivity to the MER. ERs are smaller than an MER, but still require a calculated floor space to serve the user area properly.

Both an MER and ERs demand proper HVAC and electrical support. Additional electrical outlets must be coordinated with the placement of the equipment racks to ensure sufficient electrical connectivity.

In addition to the electrical requirement, each MER and ER has specific temperature and humidity conditions. These conditions ensure the utmost performance and efficiency for a school's sensitive electronics. Other design requirements for an MER and ER include lighting, door types and floor coverings. Carpeting, for example, should never be placed in these rooms. Carpet can act as a source of static and contaminants that could easily damage or degrade the operating capability of network electronics. Alternative floor coverings such as VCT should be considered instead.

Providing sufficient connectivity between an MER and ERs is critical to the successful delivery of information to a user. Fiber-optic backbones should be used for this purpose. A district should consider the types of fiber, as well as adequate strand counts, for current and future technology requirements before installation begins.

The transfer of data, voice and video applications from an MER or ER to a user is accomplished with the use of horizontal cabling. A standard for classroom outlets should be included in the comprehensive technology plan. This will reduce the chances of having too few or misplaced outlets in a room.

Category 6 unshielded twisted pair (UTP) is the most robust horizontal cabling available. Because of its high bandwidth capabilities, Category 6 can handle voice, data and video applications and always should be considered when constructing or renovating a facility.

Another form of media delivery gaining attention is wireless technology. When designing for a wireless system, however, a user should wait until the building has been completed, or the accuracy of the design may be in question.

The last delivery system a CATE technology plan should identify is audio/video or AV. Will the school use fixed projectors or mobile carts? Will a broadband distribution system or CATV be required? The locations for projectors or CATV outlets and devices must be laid out to ensure the viewing capabilities are adequate for the room. If a district is going to have a media distribution room, proper floor space, power and HVAC must be designed for the equipment.

While planning what is required for technology inside a building, give proper attention to what is required to deliver that technology successfully. Adequate planning for conduit pathway quantities and sizes for outside plant services must be done in partnership with local utility providers. Always install spare conduits whenever possible.

King, AIA, is director of applied learning and is responsible for CATE design programs including curriculum design, pathway research and building design integration for Huckabee & Associates, Fort Worth, Texas. Lawrence, RCDD/NTS, is the firm's director of technology and is responsible for the design of telecommunications and technology systems. John McCain, RCDD, is a telecommunications design engineer for Huckabee and contributed to this article.