The night crew works late to keep classroom media humming ... and they'd really like to see less chalk dust

It's 6 p.m. on a Wednesday in November, and the five technicians on today's night crew are meeting inside Surge II to get their next assignments. The "hot list" of repairs has only two items, media maintenance supervisor Bruce McCaskie tells them, so the shift looks quiet.

But that's not to say the crew won't find a surprise or two when they fan out through the classrooms. They have before.

If you never work late on campus, you never see the classroom tech night crew. But if you teach or study in any of the 119 general assignment classrooms on campus, you rely on their skills. This group keeps the tech side humming. They're the staff technicians and students who help install and maintain the media cabinets, networked projectors and other high-tech tools that have become staples of university teaching.

"One reason UC Davis has such a remarkable record [in classroom tech reliability] is the upkeep done by the night crew," says Jan Dickens, who oversees IET-Classroom Technology Services (CTS). "It helps keep defect time to an absolute minimum."

The crew works after dark because that's when the classrooms are free, and mostly works alone. They check systems, use platforms that lift them 20 feet above the floor, answer hotline calls for evening classes, and occasionally chase off people trying to use an empty classroom as a private theater--or worse.

And they fight chalk dust. Don't snicker, it's not trivial. Follow a couple of the technicians around for an evening and you'll see why.

Applause for rescuing a lecture

The crew usually has nine people, although five are working tonight: staff technicians Lamar Veasey and Virgil Castro, and students Ryan Coates, Adam Kreger and Khanh Nguyen. The shift starts with a meeting in a large, crowded back room in Surge II that McCaskie calls "the shop." The students will knock off at midnight, the rest at 2:30. It's the same every weeknight.
hing broken. Plus, when you're working you feel like you're somewhat your own boss."

He likes his coworkers. "It's a very mellow atmosphere, easygoing."

Mellow, maybe, but since the "hot list" rarely runs a temperature, the maintenance drill seems to work.

In the spring quarter, the night crew logged 1,610 classroom maintenance visits, checking 12,205 pieces of equipment. Ninety-one percent of the total visits were scheduled maintenance, says a CTS quarterly report. The other 9 percent were for "specific reported equipment or system issues."

Good record-keeping minimizes problems. Back in the shop, the crew tracks details such as the age of projector bulbs, so CTS has replacements in stock when a bulb burns out. (You don't want to replace them early; some bulbs cost hundreds of dollars.) The techs can also call on tools ranging from heavy-duty drill presses, so they can customize fixtures, to hydraulic lifts that let them get their hands on a ceiling-mounted speaker.

And there are annual chores. Once a year CTS uses a high-pressure sprayer--it sprays water at a force of 3,000 pounds per square inch--to blast chalk dust off the projector carts. "The dust is extremely hard to get detached from the plastic surfaces," McCaskie says. Afterwards, the crew applies a coat of silicon spray so the next doses of dust won't stick as badly.

That's important, because in classroom tech, chalk is as welcome as noise in a reading room.

A finely ground irritation

A stick of chalk wears down with use, but the fine powder it creates hangs around, drifting into keyboards or clogging equipment. When the powder scatters it gets sucked into projector filters, increasing the risk of expensive damage from overheating.

"It's almost problem No. 1," McCaskie says.

Sometimes the crew finds dust a quarter-inch thick in the chalk trays. It doesn't help that the media cabinets typic ally sit near the chalkboard at the front of the room. Says Coates, "I spend half my time cleaning chalk dust out of machines."

Shifting to whiteboards would fix that, but many instructors insist on chalk, and whiteboards present their own problems. They can be hard to keep clean, markers wear out or get pocketed, and some people are bothered by the fumes. Plus they're not traditional.

"Chalkboards are popular," McCaskie says. "I don't think that'll ever change."

Dungeons & Dragons in Wellman

Working near midnight means the night crew comes across surprises now and then. The most common is people hanging out in a classroom, using the screen to watch movies or play games. They get shooed out.

Castro once came across a group, ranging from high schoolers to adults in their 40s, playing Dungeons and Dragons in a half-dozen rooms in Wellman. The players didn't care about the technology; they simply wanted space.

Sometimes the poaching is less innocent. One man was caught downloading movies through a classroom media cabinet--he was recording them on his own desktop computer, which he had rolled in on a cart. CTS has stopped that kind of abuse by removing the IP (Internet) addresses from the outside of the cabinets.

More night than last year

The night crew is working later these days. Until 2006 the shift started at 5 and ended at 1. But most general classrooms are occupied until 8 p.m.--an hour later than in 2005-06, and a sign of the campus's growing enrollment. So CTS moved the shift back an hour.

Between the volume and continuing spread of high technology, the night crew should be busy indefinitely. CTS expects to add another five classrooms to its roster soon, with more to follow.

"Yeah, we're kind of happy about that," McCaskie says.

Then he gets in one more word about chalk dust.

"We're hoping," he adds, laughing, "maybe they'll install supersize Etch A Sketches to get rid of the chalkboards."

For more information on technology in classrooms, click here.