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Athena Classes Aid Students

By Dan McGuire
Associate News Editor

MIT's Athena Computing Environment is a powerful network of computers that can support tasks as complex as mathematical calculations and as mundane as e-mail. But because the system is based on the UNIX operating system, it can appear complicated and intimidating to many incoming students.

The Athena Minicourses, run by the Athena Training Staff during Residence and Orientation Week, are designed to assuage some of the fears that new users may have. The courses "really lay a nice foundation for everything they need to know about Athena," said Gary L. Dryfoos, who coordinates the courses.

The courses "give you a foundation on which you can start to teach yourself," said Ann Marie White G, one of the instructors. But the goal of the course is to "make Athena one thing [new students] don't want to worry about during R/O," she said.

Information Systems recommends that all students take the four hour-long introductory courses that the group offers - Introduction to Athena, Working on Athena, Basic Word Processing and E-Mail, and Word Processing with EZ - in order to get a good grasp of how to use Athena at its most basic level.

"We've actually gotten about half of the freshman class which is roughly what we normally get," White said.

"The proliferation of the PC has gotten people to think they're able" to work on Athena without any training. "This is a little different from what they're used to," Dryfoos said.

White said that some new students with computing experience walk into the Introduction to Athena course and then walk out when they discover the topics covered are more suited toward beginners.

They then skip the Working with Athena course as well. "They have no idea what UNIX is about. So they're kind of left hanging high and dry" when it comes time to use Athena for more complex tasks, she said.

"MIT students are very impatient. They will just get up and leave," Dryfoos said. "You've got to pick the pace up but keep it slow enough for beginners."

New students find courses useful

Students were generally happy with the minicourses.

Athena "is not user-friendly like Windows or the Mac," said George Savvides '00, who attended an Athena course. The courses are "a good start for experimenting with" the system, he said. "It's useful knowledge."

"It's very powerful," said Roderick MacLeod '00. "I'm not sure whether that's a consequence of being hard to use."

"You can't find your way through it" by yourself, he said.

"I haven't really explored Athena yet," said Steven Huang '99, a transfer student. "It's something different," he said.

Alyssa Thorvaldsen '00 agreed, saying that the Athena class "hasn't made a difference yet" because she needs to practice. She said that the course's take-home booklet appears quite helpful.

Term brings broader horizons

During the rest of the year, the training staff teach more advanced courses on the system and applications that run on it.

The topics of the courses taught "run from very basic stuff on to some pretty advanced areas," said Amy M. Smith '98, who teaches minicourses. Smith said that the most popular of the minicourses are Working on Athena, one on HTML, and one on dotfiles, which are used to configure the way Athena works.

"We're all here because we like teaching," White said. "There are a lot of things that will overwhelm" new students, she said. "It's really cool to level the playing field for folks."