Welcome to LQ!
You've already found the best Linux help site, so the next step is to do some research. This question gets asked on an almost daily basis, so there are tons and tons of threads discussing the pros and cons of various Linux distros.
As a way to get started, you might work through a Linux Distribution Chooser
that will point you in some general directions. You probably should also look at Linux on Laptops
and see what distros have been successfully installed on TravelMates. You also might consider using a live CD distro like Knoppix (and the various Ubuntus also have live CD versions) that would let you work in Linux without messing with your hard drive.
As a first step however, I would check with your course instructor. They may have a particular distro they want you to use.