Howard Community College has the answer for students who can't write a paper without indulging a few vices.
Its new "cyber cafe" -- 10 computer work stations in the cafeteria -- allows students to check e-mail, do homework or access the campus' Web resources while drinking coffee, eating dessert or talking with friends.
"It's like your house, basically," said Alex Desai, 21, an electrical engineering student from Columbia.
Between classes yesterday, he was sending instant messages to a friend at George Washington University while reading a newspaper online and researching cellular telephones.
HCC applied for a $15,000 grant for the computer center from the Verizon Foundation, the charitable arm of Verizon Communications. It then received matching funds from the state's Innovative Partnership for Technology Fund to purchase furniture and computers.
Students have been using the center since it was set up in mid-July, but the college will have an opening celebration for the cyber cafe today.
Thomas J. Glaser, HCC's vice president for information technology, said the college has 1,400 computers for students. Many of them, however, are in classrooms that are not open for general use. In the past few years, the college has offered more services online, including library reserves and registration. As a result, demand for the computers in the main lab has increased.
"The room is packed all day long," Glaser said.
He said HCC also expects to offer wireless access to the network at that location by February. Students will then be able to work on laptop computers in the outdoor smoking area adjacent to the cafeteria.
The casual atmosphere of the new center is quite different from the ambiance in the college's main computer lab.
Desk lamps softly light the black flat-screen monitors, placed on worktables near the windows that line one end of the dining hall. Users sitting in cafeteria chairs can adjust the keyboard trays to suit individual ergonomic needs.
The primary computer lab has 60 computer terminals set up in long rows in a narrow room. Students quietly sit elbow to elbow, with limited room.
"You can't eat. You can't use your cell phone," said Muhammed Choudhary, 18, who was talking with Desai. "You could hear a pin drop" in there, Desai said.
On the other hand, in the cyber cafe, the lunch crowd hits its peak just after noon, sending the volume level above what most people would consider conducive to studying.
The monitors occupy very little room on the cafeteria desks, leaving plenty of space for the dining center's paper trays. The school has covered the keyboards with a thin protective plastic wrap to keep crumbs and liquids out of crevices.
The cyber cafe is open when the dining room is open, from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. The main lab has extended hours, until 11 p.m. six days a week.
Faculty member John Siebs, who teaches Internet technology, used to read the newspaper during lunch. Now the computer terminals have lured him away. "It's just handy to come down at lunch and read the New York Times," he said. "It's hard for me to eat and not be doing anything."