Imagine for a moment that you are working at a computing help desk, staring at the phone and waiting for the next ring. The phone rings, and you pick it up. Someone has a computer problem. Often, that problem has persisted and resisted all of the caller’s remedies. Sometimes what you hear is exasperation and frustration. Getting to the core of the problem happens only after the venting has taken place. Fix the problem. Move to the next call.

That help-desk scenario can lead to a rather skewed view of what university computing really is – where, after all, productive computer use happens all the time.

Getting a broader view of how computing happens in research labs and normal university life is the motivation for “Field Trip Fridays.” Field Trip Fridays pair researchers with IT staff to explore how computing can expand our capabilities Duke. The program began after Professor John Board (ECE and Associate CIO) and CIO Tracy Futhey chatted about how to get a broader picture of “researchers in their natural habitat.” Futhey and Board made a few informal lab visits with real people who use computing technologies to run their labs, devise new projects, interact with other scientists and scholars, and conduct their research. Trial “field trips” conducted in two labs in Pratt and the Department of Biology shaped what has now become a regular affair begun in the fall semester.

Field Trip Fridays take place on a Friday afternoon for about 60-90 minutes in labs and research sites (the “natural habitat”) around campus. Participation is by invitation, at least among IT staff, and the only agenda is a researcher’s work, with an eye on how information technologies can enable scholarly and scientific work done in labs, offices, and studios.

The expectation is that everyone – IT staff and researcher alike – leave the room with a better understanding and appreciation for how computing and research works at a place like Duke. Field trip conversations often lead to a set of actionable items that OIT staff then follow up.

“Please leave your laptop behind, and restrain your use of mobile devices during the field trip,” an informational email to OIT participants reads. (There is also a dress code, albeit one expressed in a simple and relative sense: “You can’t be the worst dressed in the room.”)

Thus far, field trips have included faculty from Pratt and Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, with departments ranging from biomedical engineering, physics, chemistry, and art history. Venues have been in biology labs and the Nasher Museum. And the intellectual challenge has been significant, with participants considering science of the initial moments of the Big Bang and the paradoxical qualities of glass.

Research Computing is looking for other field trip destinations. If you have one, let Mark DeLong (mark.delong@duke.edu) know about it.