Using Linux on Your Computer
It is possible to intall Linux on your own computer, and you can do it without erasing the operating system that you already have. Of course, to use Linux, you don't need to install it; you can use it from your computer by connecting to the Math/CS department's computers, using ssh. Furthermore, if your goal is just to do CS homework on your own computer, you don't need to install Linux to do that; most of the programs used in CS courses -- such as a Java Compiler and Eclipse -- are available for all operating systems, not just Linux. You can use them in your regular operating system and use sftp.html to transfer files back and forth between your computer and your account on the Math/CS department's file server.
However, once you've tried Linux, you might be wondering how to install it on your own computer. You have several options for doing so.
To install Linux Mint, you will need an installation DVD or USB stick. You can borrow an installation USB stick from the system administrator, David Eck (firstname.lastname@example.org), or you can download from http://www.linuxmint.com/. If you download the .iso file from linuxmint.com, you will want to write it to a DVD. The installer is a "Live DVD." You can boot your computer from it and try out Linux to see how it runs on your computer. If you like it, you can install it. The installation is not hard to do, butI do not recommend installing Linux unless you really know what you are doing. The installer can also be written to a "Live USB stick", but the easiest thing to do is to borrow one from Professor Eck if you want to try it out.)
Another option is to install Linux inside a "virtual machine" such as Virtual Box. Virtual Box is a program that runs inside your regular operating system and that simulates the hardware of a PC. It runs this machine in a regular window on your computer desktop, allowing you to use your "virtual" machine at the same time that you use your real machine. You can install Linux in Virtual Box on Windows or Mac (or even inside another version of Linux). Virtual Box can also be used to run Windows under Linux, or one version of Windows under another version. Note that it is possible to install Linux in Virtual Box directly from an .iso file, without writing it to a DVD. You will probably need to get some help the first time you try it!
If you have any questions, ask for help!!